A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet: “Z”

Z is for Zucchini

A poor gardener’s friend, the zucchini rewards inattention with a bumper crop. But ignore this veggie at your peril. With back turned for a day and you find a modest fruit has grown to the size of a baseball bat. This tendency alone is why it is good to raise a pig next to the summer garden. Pigs will eat your oversize zucchini and overripe vegetables. And they would eat your baseball bat for that matter.

Two good plants will provide all your “zuke” needs for a season. So productive you scramble for ways to eat them: layered in lasagna or simmered in tomato sauces, bread and butter pickles or added to your kimchi, baked into a sweet bread or made into a savory pancake with fresh yogurt and chives.

But our favorite way of using excess zucchini is to stealthily leave them on a neighbor’s porch, ring the bell and run.


Reading this weekend: Roots: the definitive compendium by Diane Morgan, a cookbook devoted to roots. And, Roast Figs, Sugar Snow: winter food to warm the soul by Diana Henry. A bit obvious as to what is on my mind this week.

A Winged Elm Farm Alphabet Book: “J”

J is for Jack Frost

As a kid in south Louisiana I remember the keen excitement of being told at the breakfast table that Jack Frost had visited overnight. We’d run outside to see the brushstrokes of frost on grass, windows and on the last of the summer garden. By the time we were off to school he had already gone, taking his artwork with him.

On our Tennessee farm I still feel the same pleasure, walking a pasture dusted with his work, watching the sun reclaim with streaks of light. Part playful, merry prankster, harbinger of change: Jack Frost signals the exit of summer’s Jack of the Wood and tells us to check our stores of goods for the coming of Old Man Winter.

John Muir, sunrise and the full moon

In 1867 naturalist John Muir walked from Indianapolis, IN to Key West, FL. He crossed into Tennessee through the Cumberland Mountains, almost getting robbed by former soldiers as he walked towards Kingston, our county seat. The account of that trek is absorbing reading for both his natural observations and those of a walk through a defeated land. From Kingston to Philadelphia, TN his walk took him through narrow slanting valleys. There are only a couple of narrow slanting valleys that would get you from Kingston to Philadelphia. So it is a good bet that 145 years ago John Muir walked by our farm.

Muir popped into my head this morning, as once again, I watched the sun light up our land. On Thanksgiving morning I woke early and walked to the top of the hill. As the pilots say, “above the clouds the sun is always shining”. At the top of the hill the sun was indeed up and striking the tops of the trees. Over the next hour the light gradually filtered down into the valley. Not fully illuminating our farm until half-past eight, almost exactly one hour from sunrise. It was another thirty minutes before the sun struck the creek bottoms giving light to our nearest neighbors.

Watching that sunrise reminded me of the pleasure we get out of a full moon. On the night of a full moon we walk to the top of the hill, sit in our folding chairs and watch that spotlight come over the hill. You know that great illusion, the one where the size is magnified by its relation to the horizon. As soon as the size diminishes, about ten minutes after rising, we walk back to our home. Where we set the chairs up and watch the moon rise again. Once it diminishes in size we jump in the truck and drive to the bottom pasture where we get to watch it rise for a third time within an hour. Actually, we think, this is a pretty cool trick for our nearest satellite, as well as cheap entertainment for the rustics.

Hopefully Muir enjoyed the same show as he walked through our valley.

Waiting on Isaac

Waiting for Isaac: like the RNC, Florida and the mid-west, we too expected the storm to visit. Instead it parked itself over my ancestral homeland and unleashed insane amounts of wind and rain and left Clint Eastwood gesturing at an empty chair. Meanwhile, having myself just returned from the humid climes of the Gulf region, I spent much of the week tossing in sweat soaked sheets with a 100 degree temperature. Like a soldier returned from the tropics with a case of malaria, the grippe or ague I just couldn’t shake it.

Farm work, work-work, all seemed a bit hazy through the fog of fever. Somehow a hog was delivered to the tender and mercifully quick hands of the York brothers. Four hundred pounds of porcine pleasure conveniently packaged and returned to us in time for the Labor Day weekend. We kept one side for our use. Friend and fellow culinary adventurer John W. removed the other half to K-town. A ham awaits my curing efforts later today for a side of pork is a gift that gives.

The farm work load on Saturday, our usual work day, was fairly over the top and made more difficult by being sick (Let us call it malaria, a bit more romantic than saying one has the “crud”.) But between Cindy, me, Caleb and Shannon we managed to clear the slate on a large “To Do” list; an effort that may I clearly state “kicked my ass”. A dinner last night with friends and neighbors and we were in bed by midnight.

Aside from the aforementioned curing of the ham and curing Brian (Cindy suggested slathering me with salt and hanging me under the stairs), the making of perry still awaits and a week of haymaking is on the calendar in someone’s twisted idea of vacation. Yet much of it still depends on that tropical moisture and how it impacts us over the next few days: waiting on Isaac and a fever to pass.

Drought, Rain and Death: a normal week on the farm

Like a desert after the rains our farm has erupted into mid and late summer growth. June was dry and hot, then July above average in rain and now August with five inches of rain to date. I recently returned from a trip to Iowa to find my neat and manicured vegetable garden a veritable rain forest of foliage, some intentional and some opportunistic. How pigweed can appear and grow into spiny three foot plants overnight I’ll never know? Jack’s beanstalk ain’t got nothin’ on pigweed.

Concurrent with the explosion of growth is the discovery of our tomatoes by the chickens. Reaching through the dense tomato vines I clutch a beautiful two pound Brandywine only to find it hollowed out and empty. I chase the chickens out only to find they have additional partners in crime hiding under the ever expanding pigweed who then dash out to resume their tomato festival after my departure. Will their flesh be tomato flavored?

Our new pond has filled 1/3 full with the rains and seems to be holding. The hard work of putting down grass seed and hay, what seemed to be a folly in 105 degree heat and in the middle of a drought, now seems Solomon like in wisdom and forethought. Sometimes best laid plans work out.

And sometimes they do not. In June we lost three ducks in gruesome attacks to a snapping turtle. An early morning stalking session by one of the ponds and I was able to send the turtle to the afterlife with the assistance of my double barrel 12 gauge. Our beautiful Saxony ducks, a heritage breed we have long wanted: Cindy wanted for their beauty and elegance and I for their possible contributions to the table had been ordered in the spring from a hatchery in Oregon. We had nursed them along from hatchling status. Then watched them feather out into beautiful mature birds.

Thursday, while we were gone the flock disappeared. Cindy looked unsuccessfully on that night and was unable to find them. Arriving back from my trip on Friday evening I called our neighbor Lowell to see if he had seen the flock. He had. I put my boots on and Cindy stayed at the house. Walking up the big hill a few hundred yards I climbed over the gate into Lowell’s hay field. It was another hundred yards until I found the site where our neighbor had spotted the flock the night before. I found them just as he said. Spread out over a large area, were our Saxony’s… all dead.

We can only hazard a guess. And that guess is death by canine. The ducks mostly had been killed from the back consistent with our herding dogs. It is possible that the ducks had moved up the hill while grazing and Robbie tried to herd them back. Frustrated, he may have started to bite. He may have had help. Or it could have been a neighbor’s dog. We will never know: a death by misadventure.


“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.”
Kathryn Anne Porter from her memoir The Days Before

I have written of our efforts at self-sufficiency and of clownish neighbors. But, I have not conveyed much of the wisdom of our self-sufficient neighbors. As mentioned previously, self-sufficiency is as much about learning to live in hard times or preparing for the same as it often is a response to a cultural memory. For those of us in the US that memory extends to the Depression and further back to stories of hardship after the American Civil War. A knowledge that what one currently enjoys may yet be removed from ones ownership.

T-posts: A few years ago I helped Lowell Raby rebuild a fence. He and I labored for weeks. He outworked me most days even though he is in his mid-seventies. Besides that fact what Cindy and I often recall was a steadfast determination to build a beautiful and sturdy fence and his use of frugality to achieve it. A t-post, the metal post commonly used in line to attach barbed wire, has become quite expensive. Currently they run about $3.99 a post. Multiply that cost times a hundred and you quickly get fence that is not economically justifiable to build.

Lowell, in typical fashion as we have learned these last 12 years, found a novel way to circumvent that cost. He bought warehouse shelving posts at auction. If you have been in a warehouse you have seen the towering shelving units that go up 20-30 feet where goods are stored. The connecting pieces, a bit like scaffolding, come in 12 foot units. These pieces he bought in bulk and hauled to his farm. Using a cutting torch these were then cut into 6 foot sections. We used these pieces as our posts, pushed into the ground with his front end-loader. They are sturdy and will in all likelihood outlast the un-bought t-posts. Unit costs were perhaps 25 cents.

Home production: A man lives across the road from our farm in a small hand-built house of no particular style, maybe 600 square feet. Additionally he has a few small outbuildings. It all sits on about an acre of land nestled between the road and the creek. The owner works odd jobs as a handyman. His place is beautifully kept, neat and orderly. But, the real pride is the garden. Beginning in late winter a regular and varied succession of crops and veggies make an appearance. Never a sign advertising produce, we are left to assume that is all canned and preserved for his own use. Regardless, his place is a simple reminder of the value of hard work.

Repurposing: Ten years ago Cindy wrecked on Pond Creek while pulling a horse trailer. Shaken but unhurt she secured the horse and made arrangements to have the trailer towed to the wrecker. The top of the trailer was completely smashed like a beer can. To our eyes and the eyes of the insurance company this was a total loss.

Mr. Kyle, another neighbor, heard the story and asked Cindy to call the wrecker company for him. He bought the smashed trailer for $60. Using a welding torch he cut away the frame of the trailer and was left with a perfectly sound foundation. Using scrap metal from his barn he built a new and sturdy frame. A few weeks later he drove up to our farm and showed us a functional, painted livestock trailer. Still in use the many years later, the trailer reminds us of the need and uses of thrift.

We struggle with the same impulse as the rest… go buy it. We have gradually, though certainly imperfectly, begun to learn to make do or simply “make”.

Staying in one piece with chainsaws and augers

Looking back over my shoulder, I’ve come to a sprinting stop halfway into the woods. My heart is beating fast. The 30-foot-tall tree I have been cutting down has fallen against another tree. Now it’s dangling precariously over a fence, the opposite direction from which I had notched it to fall. At this point, I am aware that my chainsaw is still idling–and hanging perilously close to my leg.
Recently I had a discussion with Cindy, trying to sell her on the idea that spending $2500 on a portable sawmill was a good investment. We can earn that money back with one good oak tree, I tell her. We will have a lifetime of well-cut lumber. I can quit my day job and cut lumber on other people’s property, I throw in hoping to persuade.
She says, “$2500. Hmmm … I guess that’s about the cost of one prosthetic limb?”
Equipment on the farm allows you to save time and energy (perhaps even money), but it is infinitely frustrating and dangerous. Soon after we bought the tractor-powered posthole digger, the nightmares began: Scarves, hair, shoelaces, fingers, all caught and sucking me into rapidly moving gears. Arms pulled out of sockets, wheelchairs, physical therapy, and charity stretching to the horizon. Pleasant stuff.
Hopefully that scarf, missing finger, empty arm socket, wheelchair, and an infinite horizon of charity will remain just a nightmare. But the frustration of dealing with cantankerous machinery or forgetting basic principles of leverage seems to be the rule in my life on the farm. And so it’s been since the beginning.
Cindy bought her first horse a week before we actually closed on the farm. Paint was very pregnant—a two for the price of one, an “offer we couldn’t refuse,” but we had no home to put her in. With the blessing of the man selling us the property, we headed out to build a corral. At that time we had neither fencing on our 70 acres nor the skills to put it up.
That first day on the farm, we brought in T-posts; telephone pole-size corner posts, posthole digger, a rented hand-operated auger, and enthusiasm. It was 95 degrees, the ground was baked, and the auger was missing a bolt. First experience with driving endless distances when you run out of something in the country, first experience with businesses rolling up their carpets at noon on Saturdays. Cindy returned with bolt an hour later, donated by an ATV repairman some miles down the road.
The auger is a dainty piece of equipment: a gas engine on top of a nine-inch-diameter, three-foot-long turning screw. The idea is simple. Start engine, hold auger away from privates, and drill hole.
Two hours later, both of us red-faced, our frustration level is very high. I have barely managed to dent the surface of the ground. I ditch the gas-powered auger. A couple more hours later, using a hand-driven posthole digger, I’ve carved out two holes barely deep enough to hold the massive corner posts. We manage in another few hours to set some T-posts and stretch some woven wire.
While this has been going on, our dear friends Jack and Deb turn up to see our “idyllic country place.” They just can’t understand why we have sold our restored Victorian home and moved to the sticks to live in a concrete-floored garage. Before their arrival, I had entertained hopes of boasting a healthy day of physical activity and a neat bit of fencing to show for our effort.
Instead, our tempers are frayed and my sunburn has turned to a nasty molten shade. I look at our effort, T-posts set out of line, the corner posts set too shallow, fencing already sagging, and I wonder, what in the hell made me think we could do this. My enthusiasm is waning as quickly as the setting sun.
A few months later, along with a 40-year-old tractor with a three-point hitch, we buy a tractor-operated auger. This single piece of equipment should allow us to (more or less) effortlessly drill holes all over the property.
The first time we hook it up to the old Ford, we are just starting to fence our first pasture. This is a small pasture below the barn that encloses about an acre and half. The fencing is woven wire. It was originally meant to protect sheep. (One day I’ll tell you the story of when I was in New Hampshire and Cindy pulled up the drive only to see our sheep-guarding dog playing catch with the head of a decapitated lamb.)
The first post for our new pasture system is to be set halfway down the slope of our lower fields. I stand ready to guide the auger into correct position as Cindy backs the tractor up and lowers the auger to the ground. Once the clutch pedal is depressed, the power takeoff (PTO) is engaged and the auger begins to turn, boring easily into the fertile soil. It drills down to its three-foot maximum, and Cindy takes her foot off the clutch. The auger stops spinning, and she pulls the lever that lifts the hydraulics. Nothing. She depresses the clutch pedal. The auger spins, but again it won’t budge. It is buried to the top by earth, and the tractor can’t pull it out.
I guess the easiest way to understand the predicament is to imagine a wood screw torqued into a block of wood until only the head is sticking out. No amount of brute yanking will budge it.
There is an acute embarrassment that comes with standing in the middle of a field, visible to all, at a complete loss on how to solve the problem. Hanging my ego out to dry in public does not build self-esteem.
So how to fix it? Getting out a shovel, I dig a hole three feet down and three feet in diameter all the way around the auger. Then, engaging the PTO, I yank the SOB out of the ground. We set our post. One post set in four hours.
Having found out that there is no “reverse” on an auger, I ask our neighbor Mr. Kyle for advice before we started the second hole. There is a trick, I’ve learned: When you engage the PTO on the tractor and the auger starts spinning, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Dig your hole and, with one continuous motion, pull out the still spinning auger.
We try this on our next hole. Again, the auger digs down. When it is down to three feet, we pull up on the hydraulics. As if to mock our farming ambitions, the auger continues to dig down, again burying the casing of the motor. Two hours later, I finish digging out the auger.
Four hundred dollars worth of auger, eight hours worth of work and we have set two posts. I dig the remaining 12 postholes by hand.
It was many months before we dared again to use the auger. Today, we are quite proficient. Cindy operates the tractor, and I handle the metal bar that guides the giant screw into the ground. The trick, we’ve figured out, is to keep it spinning, digging down one foot at a time, and then pulling it up. That way there is less resistance from the soil on the tractor’s hydraulics.
You know the old saw “That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Farm work is a lot like that; it offers plenty of opportunities to show your ignorance, as well as to run the risk of losing limbs. There always seems to be a tree falling the opposite direction from where I intended and a running chainsaw dangerously close to my leg.
But, I now can look at 70 acres of fencing, barns, chicken coops, equipment sheds, orchards, and gardens and say, “We did all that.” And as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.