The Good Tenant

I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner, the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.

To run a small diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent these many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.

Livestock live their lives out here, with their offspring raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.

Some wondered, with the sale of the cattle, if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over seventeen years, and one that continues to unfurl.

In that big picture, the beautiful snow in winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer and chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.

The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down, but in a circle. A place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.

Yet, as well as we live within the wheel, we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years, not a mere seventeen. And while capricious in her communications — railing one minute and calm the next — she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch out for her moods and scale appropriate to what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of our land reverts back to her.


Reading this weekend: The Running Hare: the secret life of farmland, by John Lewis-Stempel.


A Fever In The Night

There’s no measurable rain in the forecast through the end of the year, and a pall of smoke hangs over the valley from wildfires. Firefighters have been flying in from all over the country to help overloaded volunteer fire departments cope with the size and number of blazes flaring up.

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Round bales of hay stored on our farm

I spent much of yesterday hauling and stacking square bales of hay purchased from a farmer two valleys over. With each bend in the road coming and going,­ another dry pond, dead pasture, or dying hardwood came into view. There is a bit of the post-apocalyptic look to this land. The verdant Southeast has been laid low by two years of below normal rainfall. Wells are beginning to run dry; farmers are selling off livestock. The pasture rootstock is at or beyond any quick recovery.

The tried-and-true strategies of rotation, permaculture, and old-fashioned conservation help mitigate the worst effects. Or perhaps “mitigate” isn’t the right word. Defer? Yes, the tried-and-true strategies help defer the worst effects. Mid-south agriculture is based on, depends on, plentiful rainfall, not irrigation — the result of a cornucopia of happy geographic coordinates.

Is this drought a direct result of climate change? It’s impossible to know for sure. Grazing and growing practices are based on the faith that things will continue long term much as they always have. But will our happy coordinates no longer contribute to our abundance? With exceptional droughts and 1,000-year deluges occurring with the regularity of the rising sun, I’m inclined to sound the ram’s horn. I’ve discussed with other area farmers how to prepare for a warmer climate. But what has only become clear in the past few years is that we have to prepare for an unstable climate.

For those who live in the city and buy their meat and veggies at the grocery store or at The Olive Garden, drought and heavy rain are an inconvenience. For those who produce a measure of food for the public, climate instability can be ruinous. For the average rural household of South Roane County, which earns a paltry third of the income of East and West coast city dwellers (low-$20,000s vs. $60,000s), the ability to grow at least some of their own food can mean the difference in surviving and not.

My concerns for the future lie in the intersection of community and self-sufficiency. Thinking of all the rural communities devastated this year by floods in places like the Carolinas and Louisiana, I wonder if those communities will ever come back: the foundations of neighborliness foundering on economic dissolution and post-growth politics. My gut tells me that no one left or right in the political elites really gives a shit. Which in the past has been okay because the rural folks traditionally have made do.

That is, they were able to make do based on the old model. It is this new climate model about which I’m not so sanguine. Sure, we can stockpile our hay, pull our livestock off sensitive hill pastures, nurse our orchards, vines, and gardens with a careful tonic of water (provided it is not stolen by cities at war with us and each other over water stocks). We can make these changes for the short term. But those are actions based on a hope that this is just an aberration, that things won’t get really bad, that the worst imaginings of our mind are like a fever in the night that passes before waking.

My worst imaginings are for uncertainties for which you can’t model an outcome.

Basic Farm Lessons: Part 4


Short Lessons

  • Magic Wild Turkey Tricks: I have a magic flock of wild turkeys on the farm. Each evening, between the hours of 4 and 6, they reliably cross the lane and graze on our hill pasture. Yet if I stand quiet in the shadows with my shotgun at the appointed time, they magically never appear. How do they do that?
  • Learning to Panic: Living on a farm provides plenty of opportunities in learning to panic. Owning Grainger, a 70-pound adolescent Carolina Dog who still considers chickens chew toys, gives me multiple moments of anxiety each day. Yesterday, I walked around a corner of the barn to find the door to the brooder left open and all 25 4-week-old Barred Rocks scattering to the wind.
  • Water Conservation, Part 1: (A timely lesson as our county slips into extreme drought.) Question: If I turn on the water for the hogs in the woods at 8 a.m., at what time will Cindy come in the house to inquire after the length of time the water has been filling the hog trough? Answer: 5 p.m.
  • Water Conservation, Part 2: In an effort to redeem myself, I hustle outside and fill up the sheep’s water trough. When it is full, I leave the hose in the trough and carefully disconnect the hose from its source. Doing so allows the hose to act as a siphon … slowly pulling all of the water back out of the trough and onto the parched ground. Later, over dinner, Cindy asks, “I thought you were going to fill up the sheep’s watering trough?” I feign deafness.

The Longer Lesson

Timing Is Everything: One of our nearer neighbors owns six or so dogs, an unruly mix of mutts big and small. The largest are kept penned, bored and alone, and bark morning and evening. Although a good third of a mile from our house, they can still be heard clearly through the windows and walls of my study. Not quite loud enough to disrupt my slumber, they nevertheless disturb my early morning reading and correspondence.

I’d been looking for a way to gently approach the neighbors with the question, “How in the hell can you live with such racket?!” Since their son works on our farm on Saturdays, I decided that would give me a perfect opportunity for a conversation. And, more important, a demonstration of how we manage to be good, quiet neighbors by keeping our animals firmly in check.

Yesterday, after he’d arrived and we’d exchanged a few minutes of pleasantries, the time had come to diplomatically broach the barking dogs.

Having first made a point of disciplining Grainger as he repeatedly lunged at a chicken on the other side of a fence, I began, “Hey, I’ve been meaning to ask …”

Alas, it was at that very moment that the sheep chose to begin their morning cacophony, drowning out my words, “… about your barking dogs.” Their bleating was immediately overwhelmed by the cattle in the lower pasture as they began bawling lustily for fresh hay. The sounds echoed off the ridges and continued for the next 15 minutes, disturbing the peace of everyone within a mile.

Half an hour later, our farm helper reminded me politely that I had wanted to ask him something. “Never mind,” I said. “We can talk about it another time.”


Reading this weekend: The Winter Harvest Handbook by Eliot Coleman. A re-reading of this modern classic to prepare us to use our new hoop house.

Lazy, I want to be lazy

I pulled on my third shirt just after 9:30 yesterday morning. The drought continues here in East Tennessee with the high heat and humidity punishing all efforts at productivity. We had spent the morning moving cattle, clearing brush from electric fencing and cleaning manure out of the barn. All of which left me drenched and guzzling water as fast as it leaked out of me. Some days it just seems too brutal to keep up with the workload.

A three-shirt morning

A three-shirt morning

Finally Caleb (my farm helper) and I wrapped up our workday a little after noon. We went into Sweetwater to pick up some supplies at the farmer’s co-op and ran into Tim. After a quick bite to eat at a local Mexican joint we headed back to the farm.

In the evening Tim came over and joined me and Don Davis, a friend of long standing, for dinner. I fixed a pot roast along with carrots, potatoes and a cabbage salad, always a favorite dish of mine and one Cindy dislikes. But since she was visiting family in Florida I could indulge in whatever I wanted to eat (along with a cigar).

Although it had probably been ten years since I had seen Don, like all good friends we were able to reconnect easily. He has written a number of books on Appalachian culture over the years and he brought us up to speed on the history of the American chestnut book he has been writing. He hopes to have a publisher in the coming months and the book in print within the year.

Now, after the sweat of yesterday, I find myself dawdling this morning. There is a full list of projects commanding my attention. But I just can’t bring myself to go back into the heat. This unmanly procrastination is only making matters worse as the mercury climbs into the eighties before 10am.

Yet here I sit.


Reading this weekend: The Breakdown of Nations by Leopold Kohr, a timely read after the Brexit vote.

Waiting On Rain

Waiting on rain. In my humble estimation, it’s all about reciprocity. After all, I’ve done the hard work of getting the gardens ready, dozens of new trees planted, the manure spread, and the grass seed scattered. Now it is up to the old man to simply cut loose and let it pour. But nothing falls from the sky this dry spring — we are already down 75 percent for the year — leaving me to wonder if it is time to channel our inner Assyrian and slaughter a goat.Sunday  4-10-16 005

Instead of tackling the endless to-do list and fretting about no rain, yesterday we headed to town in the truck. The master gardeners of Roane County had their annual plant sale, and we went as much for the fellowship as for the plants.

Several hours later, good conversations with friends (Tim, Russ, Summer, and Maureen) under our belts and a handful of ornamentals in the truck bed, we headed for home. When we crossed over the Tennessee River, we reentered our side of the county, South of the River. Winding down Highway 72, we pulled off on a gravel drive in Paint Rock at Aaron and Michelle’s small farm, a tidy place with goats, pigs, chickens, and gardens. Aaron broke from hoeing his garden long enough to give me a flat of heirloom pipe and cigar tobacco plants he had successfully started. I’m anxious to try my hand at curing my own blend this fall.

As we said our goodbyes, a few hopeful raindrops fell onto the pollen-coated truck windows. Here it comes, I pronounced as the skies darkened. We drove toward the farm, winding down and around the curves of Sweetwater Road as fast as the old truck would safely carry us. We arrived just as a steady drizzle began to fall … and then stopped.

A few hours later, after a few more fits and starts, we had accumulated a tenth of an inch of rain. Now, I’m a man to appreciate the small things in life as well as the big. But, come on….

So it was, that as late-afternoon guests pulled up the drive, I was in the midst of dragging the goat toward the sacrificial altar. Considering this a sign from a higher power for a temporary pardon, I postponed my attempt to appease the gods for a little while longer. We greeted and conducted our visitors on a tour of the farm for a couple of hours, a fairly common experience for us and, we hope, enjoyable and educational for them.

After their departure it was time for chores and dinner. Cindy fed the livestock, and I prepared a chicken paprikash with an old rooster, accompanied by a simple tomato tart and a cucumber salad. We read until bedtime, when the rains finally began to fall.

A little more than an inch fell overnight. And this morning the smell of burnt offerings is scarcely noticeable in our valley.

Time To Get To It

Barn 008

Spring lambs, spring grass

It is still a couple of hours before sunrise, the birds are chattering in the crape myrtle as the sky begins to lighten over the eastern ridge. Our rooster has been offering up his dawn greeting for at least two hours. And Becky just killed a large raccoon at the garbage can. In other words it is another morning on our farm in east Tennessee.

We have a full couple of days ahead planting grapevines, a new nut orchard, adding to the pawpaw grove, finishing the new raised beds for the strawberries and stretching a hundred yards of new fence. There will be a hard freeze tonight and preparations will be needed to protect the figs which are fruiting. And I am smoking a whole lamb today for a few friends who will dine with us this evening.

The work load on the farm at this time of year is over the top. In addition to all of the usual chores and ongoing infrastructure projects the seasonal tasks of mowing, gardening, mulching, pasture renovations and the annual barn cleaning just keep stacking up. Just the prospect of getting off the farm for an hour sends us in to a tail spin, feeling that we just got that much further behind.

But for all that work and the carping about it, we love this life. Mostly, the sheer loveliness of spring in Tennessee, the excitement of waiting for Petunia to farrow and being able to share with friends the bounty of the farm are ample compensations.

Time to get to it.


Reading this weekend: The Dream of the Earth, by Thomas Berry

A Farming Guide to the Political Season

Monday night we spent a couple of hours loading yearling wethers. They were destined for the slaughter the following morning. A fairly straightforward operation, Cindy pointed and I grabbed, hoisting the hundred-pound castrated ram lambs off their feet, the two of us then carrying them out of the barn. A better chute system would help, but we work with what we have today.

Wednesday night, in a rain just above freezing and a mud just below boot tops, we loaded a hog also earmarked for slaughter. We slid and stumbled in the muck, cursed and shot accusatory looks, then laughed with relief when she finally walked onto the trailer unassisted.

Thursday night, during a late season arctic blast, our newest sow farrowed 11 healthy piglets. We provided her an ample bedding of hay in an improvised stall in an open shed, adding a sheet of plywood to block the brutal north wind and a heat lamp for warmth, and, beyond providence, we trusted in the maternal instincts of an experienced mother to keep the newborns comfortable and well fed.Peggy 010

By Saturday the late-winter chill had begun to abate, and we were gifted with a rare sunny day and highs around 50 degrees. I spent the day crossing the smaller lamb paddocks on foot, oversowing a mix of oats, rye, and turnip seed that will hopefully provide some fast-growing early-spring forage for the sheep.

Early afternoon I took a break to help Cindy welcome 20 guests from the area Master Gardeners club. They were on hand to conduct a pruning practice in our half-acre orchard, which had been seriously neglected since the last big pruning two years ago — a pruning that is needed annually. In a short couple of hours, armed with pruning knives, loppers, and tree saws, the crew had cut away the deadwood, the water sprouts, and a host of unwanted branches.

Pruning crew gone, we retired to the front porch for a beer with friends, who afterward pitched in and helped with chores, then we all caravanned to another farm and joined in unloading some newly arrived weanling pigs.

I find that as the years go by, the rhetoric of conservatism and liberalism mean less and less to the life we live. Rhetoric aside, no candidate or party speaks for the rural farms or communities. Left or right the language is of the city: eternal growth and happy days (past, present, or future).

As a farmer I know a couple of truths. First, that the manure I sling has real value. Second, that growth is a part of a larger cycle and is never eternally sustained; that the wheel turns and winter always follows spring, summer, and fall.  

So, green grass must be carefully harvested and stored. Orchards must be pruned of deadwood, a diseased peach tree ruthlessly cut down and burned. Lambs serve a purpose and must be sold and eaten when that day comes. Sows will farrow, cute piglets will grow to 300 pounds before being butchered, and gardens will be tilled, planted, harvested, and prepared for the fallow months.

Manure needs to be conserved and used with care. Seed must be sown in order to grow. Resources must be nurtured. Infrastructure must be repaired and improved. And it is partnership and cooperation, not partisanship, that sustain connections in a rural community and on a farm.

And if adequately prepared for, the winter is traversed relatively unscathed into spring.