During the wee hours this morning, one of our three livestock guardian dogs sounded off. Within a few heartbeats, the other livestock guardian dogs had added their barking to the song. Which could only mean one thing - something was on the farm that shouldn't be. I hastily put on some clothes in the dark bedroom, stumbled to the back door, shoved on my mudboots and thankfully remembered to grab a flashlight. While I had been putting on clothing, the dogs not only continued to bark but all the chickens began sounding off with alarm calls of their own. About 90 seconds after I'd first heard the dog barking, I was outside. But the action was over. Whatever had been there was gone. I stayed outside for a few moments to make sure all was well, and I visited both the bird coop and each dog, to make sure they knew I'd heard them and I was checking everything. I went back inside and crawled back into bed. It was 2:10am. No birds harmed, no damage done, nothing lost except about five minutes' worth of sleep. Which is as it should be.
Predator control is a thorny and persistent topic amongst livestock owners. The various livestock email groups I participate in will periodically have some desperate message asking how to prevent predation, posted by someone after a sleepless night of warding off predators. Or worse, after a disturbing morning of going out to do morning chores and finding shredded bodies instead. It is never a happy conversation. But it is a frequent conversation, and one with the same lessons to be taught each time.
Most folks get started with livestock without a great deal of forethought about predators. I think there's a natural "that won't happen to us" mentality. Not because people are dumb, and not because people don't do their homework. Rather I think it's human nature. We get into livestock hoping for the best, and raids by predators are not a part of that "hoping for the best" mentality. Yet sooner or later, those predators come calling. More accurately, they come visiting several times to check things out, test the boundaries, assess the risks prior to making their attempt. If it sounds like I think predators are smart, that's because they are. First rule of combat - never underestimate your opponent. There's a fair amount of documentation that predators will carefully check out a property before making their first strike. We're already behind the curve before we even know there's a problem brewing.
The owner's typical first knee-jerk reaction is to want to kill the predator. That seems to be poetic justice sometimes, particularly after finding beloved animals disemboweled out in the paddock or pasture. Yet that "kill the predator" strategy has several flaws. First, the owner must actually find the predator. Most predators have territories that they traverse on a regular basis, and that predator could be miles away just a few hours later. Or the owner could wait until the predator comes back, which sometimes happens within 24 hrs. But that predator can see or smell their presence and doesn't give them the opportunity to take that shot. The predator will go back to watching and waiting, and not moving until it's safe to do so. At which point the owner still has a problem - livestock at risk of additional predation.
A bigger, and much more realistic threat is very rarely considered in the first few days and weeks after a predator loss. Even if the predator is dispatched, the livestock are STILL not safe from predation. Why? In any given area, any particular species is not represented by only one or two or three individuals, but rather by an entire population. And each individual in that population is constantly working to improve its situation. For predators, that typically means hunting territories that are defended against others of the same species. That coyote you spotted three days ago trotting across your pasture has a territory that it marks, and defends, against transgressors. That red tailed hawk that circled overhead has a nest nearby, and it will defend its territory against other red-tailed hawks. So when we take out a troublesome predator, that's not the end of the problem. Rather, that's an invitation for all the neighboring predators to begin competing for that newly available hunting territory. And typically, several individuals will compete for a single recently vacated territory. So where you had one coyote hunting yesterday, after shooting him you'll have laid out the welcome mat for six neighboring coyotes to come in next week. Your troubles have only started.
We have taken a different approach - the same approach that police departments give homeowners after a burglary. Look at your operation through the eyes of someone, or something, trying to get in to take what you have. Then make it as difficult to get your stuff as possible. First, we are firm believers in good tight fencing, and a roof over the smaller animals. We typically use 4' high field fence, positioned about 6"off the ground, with hotwire at the top, and sometimes the bottom. Secondly, we only day-range our animals, and we don't range our young animals at all. We bring pregnant at-risk animals inside or into smaller quarters. We keep lambs and kids and chicks under cover and away from both terrestrial and avian predation.
Third, we have acquired several livestock guardian dogs. Contrary to common ideas about livestock guardian dogs, their first role is not to fight off or kill intruders. Rather, their first job is to warn off would-be trespassers by barking. If that doesn’t work, then the try to chase off the intruders. If that fails, only then will they actually fight. They are very well matched against most predators that are common on the North American continent, even to warding off bears and big cats, or coyote packs.
The only reason I was able to go back to sleep this morning is because I knew what had probably happened. A predator had come by, perhaps not for the first time, and had gotten close enough, and inquisitive enough, to catch the attention of at least one dog. Once the first dog started barking, all the others were "on" and looking for the source of either the smell or sound that had tipped them off. Yet it was the combination of dogs and fencing which had prevented the predator from making a quiet kill and a quick getaway. A meal here would simply be too much effort to get through the fence, and too much risk because of the dogs. The predator moved on without so much as a bird's feathers out of place. The fencing had done its job, the dogs had done their jobs. So the only job I needed to do was double-check the perimeter, congratulate the dogs, then happily go back to bed. That's really the best recipe we've found so far for predator control.
There are many tasks on the farm that I enjoy, such as planting. There are even more tasks on the farm that I don't particularly enjoy, but which need doing, such as mucking out stalls. Then there are just a small number of tasks on the farm which I absolutely hate, but which are necessary for the life we lead and the products we sell. Top of that list are the so-called kill days, when I need to kill animals for whatever reason. Some folks refer to it as culling. Some call it butchering. Some call it harvesting. Whatever folks call it, it's a hard task and I dread those days. Today was one of them.
Today's task was to cull a dozen layer hens and four rabbits, all well past their prime, and harvest two dozen rats. All these animals would be euthanized, then sold chilled and whole to one of our steady farm clients, a zoological park several hours south of us. These small animals would go to the zoological park's many carnivores as training rewards and enrichment items. For some of those animals, our culls would be the closest they'd ever get to their natural diets. So it's a good match - we have minimal processing here, the zoo animals are able to enjoy whole prey items, and the zoological park staff doesn't have to pay for extreme shipping costs. It's a good win/win/win for everyone. Except that I hate killing the animals I've tended so carefully for so long.
We used to keep our animals until they died of natural deaths, feeling that we owed it to them to allow them a certain amount of retirement. Then we realized that retirement used feed and space and money that could be used for more productive animals. It got to a point where over half of our animals were post-productive retirees. That doesn't pay many bills. We also watched our first few dozen animals gradually but inevitably succumb to a variety of illnesses, then die despite efforts to save them. When they die due to illness, we can't use them as feed and can only compost them. At that point we knew the time had come to cull the older animals in a humane, constructive way, and to do so while they're still healthy enough to be used for one last honorable purpose: as high quality protein for other living things.
Our kill procedure is very carefully planned and carried out. For the smaller animals, we use small barrels or plastic tubs which we have filled with carbon dioxide (CO2) from a tank specifically for this purpose. Since CO2 is heavier than air, we can run a small diameter hose from the CO2 tank into the barrel or tub. Even a small but steady discharge from that hose will quickly fill the bottom of the tank or tub with almost pure CO2. A pure CO2 chamber will render an animal unconscious in a matter of seconds, with no risk to me and no danger of a missed shot or a slipped knife causing pain or anguish. As I bring each animal to the kill tub, I thank them for their service, for their products and for their lives. I put them in one at a time, after which they take a few breaths, and then it's over.
I know that there are a fair number of people who would think this is barbaric. They would argue that we don't need to keep animals at all, or that animals should not be used as meat, or that I must be some kind of monster for doing what I do. The comments that hit the hardest are when people declare I must hate the animals I keep, to inflict death on them in such a calculated way. Well, I won't even enter into a debate with them because it's unlikely either of us would convince the other.
The thought I keep coming back to is that we're all mortal. We all face that grim reaper at some point. I believe, after several decades of keeping animals both for love and for production, that we owe them a comfortable death just as much as we owe them a comfortable life. Watching them slide into old age and illness is not a comfortable death. On the other hand, putting them down while they are still healthy, is perhaps the last biggest gift I can give them. So that's what I do.
I occasionally tell my husband that this is a terrible task, and I must confess I've thought many times to stop raising animals, specifically because I hate this task so much. He told me something I've never forgotten. As a hunter, he has taken animals too, and also with as much care as possible. His words of advice to me were "It should never get easy, taking a life. But with time and practice and diligence, it does get easier." So that's what I aim for. A humane death, given quickly and competently, with as much care and respect as any other service I've done for them while living. Perhaps that's not what other people would choose for those animals. But that's the best I know how to give.
While writing this entry I was reminded of a story I read in my youth, which I never really understood. The story was called “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein. It was, I thought, a very sad story about a young boy who became friends with a tree. The tree gave the growing boy everything he needed through life. Then, in a final act of self sacrifice, the tree allowed itself to be cut down so the boy-turned-man could use the tree trunk to build a boat. The one sadness the tree had was that it had nothing left to give. But at the end of life, the man-turned-old-man only needed a place to sit and rest. Which the tree-turned-tree stump was able to provide. I think I finally understand that story. In life we all sacrifice something, sometimes sacrificing all things, and in the end we sacrifice ourselves because we don’t have any other option. But most of us go through life hoping we have a purpose in life, some value or function we can fulfill for the benefit of others. Some would consider any act to ultimately be futile since we all die and all things eventually turn to dust. I choose instead to value each gift that each creature makes possible, just as I hope that my gifts are valued, and that my life will be worth something, perhaps even after I have died. I’m not sure mortals can really hope for anything more.
As much as I love farming, and all sorts of farm-related activities, every once in awhile even I need a break. Today was one of those days.
I actually try to schedule breaks on a fairly regular basis. Not big breaks, not vacations per se. Just doing solid mental or physical work on some other activity. Sometimes that work will be mandated by life and circumstance,such as when the house plumbing needs repairs or we're renovating a room. Maybe the truck needs to be worked on. Sometimes it's hobbies and crafts, such as when I fire up my spinning wheel, or join friends for a Hobby Day. Sometimes it's the choir that I sing with at church, or maybe a workshop comes up. Whatever the event, I find that not only is it a refreshing break from the norm, I also come back to the farming having solved a few things that were puzzling me prior.
Today's projects were a history class I have been taking, then running a variety of non-farm errands which had been put off for too long, then some quiet time at a local church, and visiting with friends afterwards. Nothing earth-shattering, to be sure. And definitely nothing "profitable" or "improving the bottom line". Just investing in my own sanity, as it were.
I'm reminded of something I was taught a long time ago. Usually our conscious brains get most of the congratulations when we've figured out some puzzle. We "work" that problem, consciously, until we calculate or logic or figure or imagine our way from where we are to where we want to be. And to be sure, we get a lot done that way. But the subconscious mind can do a tremendous amount of work when we give it leave to do so. During these times when I'm not actively working on a problem, I tell myself "there's a solution here that I haven't seen yet", then I let it rest and go work on something else. Invariably, the solution will come to me while I'm working on that something else.
It seems counter-intuitive that sometimes to move forward, we have to move sideways. Goodness knows I myself have occasionally argued that the fastest way from Point A to Point B is in a straight line. Yet for whatever reason, occasionally a side trip to Point C is warranted. Having seen that proved to me more times than I can count, I now try to include those side trips. Perhaps not every day, and sometimes not even every week, but at least once or twice a month. My to-do list doesn't necessarily get any shorter, but my bucket of patience is refilled, my stockpile of enthusiasm is replenished, and my sanity battery is recharged. Time well spent.
Spent the day today exploring a new relationship. Rather, a new dimension of an existing relationship.
A friend and fellow grower has a wonderful market farming setup, but no time this year to do her growing tasks. I have time this year, but I don't yet have that infrastructure on my own place. So we're hitching our efforts together this year, so we can both have the benefit of the other's assets, and hopefully move forward as a team. I spent the day at her place, sorting seeds, getting planting trays ready, walking the property talking about where to put tomatoes, how to frame up new beds, and where everything will go in the greenhouses. I was so tired when I left, that I left behind my workboots. I didn't realize the mistake until I got home and realized I didn't have them. Since it was a choice of having them versus having cold muddy feet at evening chores, I got back in my truck and drove down to her place again to get them. Mercifully, she met me halfway. We both laughed about it, which was easier and more pleasant than cussing about it. But the cussing was not far below the surface.
It's a delicate balance, this partnership thing. It's sort of like a marriage, where we need to put aside some of our own preferences or schedules in favor of whatever the team entity needs us to do. For me, that means getting in the truck and driving 20 miles to her place two or three times a week, so that I can work in her greenhouse, plant in her tilled ground, and tend the vast array of plants we will be marketing this year. All under her more educated eye. For her, she needs to show me once how to do something, then trust that I'll do it the way she needs me to do it while she's working on something else. It means opening up her home and her workplace to the presence of another person, even on those days she'd prefer to work alone. For both of us, it means shifting how, when and where we do things, for the sake of a project neither of us could manage this year by ourselves.
The costs of goofing up are high. To start with, we're good friends. But many good friends have parted ways after sharing a project, a workplace, an apartment, or some other event that forces them to be together beyond purely social events. I already have several friends whom I love dearly, but I'd hate to live with them. And they'd hate to live with me. Our habits and our preferences are just too different. When friends can disengage from those uncomfortable arrangements, the friendship can be saved. But our partnership is, by necessity, for the duration of the growing season. Our eagerness for the coming season may morph into mere tolerance, then impatience for the year to end already. Hopefully, it won't become a gritting of teeth trying to endure each other's company until we've sold that last tomato.
As high as the potential costs, the payoff can be even higher. From my perspective, she is not only a friend but also a mentor. I can learn more from her in six months than I ever could working by myself for the next several years. She's already been where I'm going, and can help me chart a more efficient course to get there, thus avoiding all the potholes she found during her own journey. I can't forget how much blood, sweat and tears she'll be saving me along the line. As for her perspective, I can only guess that she's not yet had a willing student to listen to her advice. She has commented before how frustrating it is to see young growers get started, only to crash and burn through mistakes she could have helped them avoid. So I hope I'm as good a student as she deserves, and I hope she's as good a teacher as I need. This year will certainly be a test of both. Hopefully we'll get through the year with patience, humor, and a continued sense that we're each helping the other accomplish what we individually could not accomplish alone.
There's an old teamster phrase that says "before you hitch up to a team, look well to that other horse." In other words, a team can't function if either team-member isn't pulling their fair share of the load. I believe this team I've just joined will work out well, but it'll take work to do so. Here's to the both of us finding a way to pull together.
I was out late tonight - something I do more and more often lately. Not because I like it, but because something important is afoot and I feel compelled to be a part of it all.
Farming is not merely growing something, selling something and calling it good. That is definitely part of it, but only a small part of it. Usually a much larger part of farming is forming and maintaining, the social, professional, and political ties that keep growers and livestock producers aware of each other's activities, challenges, goals, and concerns, so that we’re not working at cross purposes. It's also reaching out and forming partnerships with the families, businesses and communities who buy our products. Ironically, regional cooperation is needed to really preserve and promote local agriculture. It was a meeting along these lines that had me out so late tonight.
The meeting tonight was a gathering of several dozen growers and producers from four counties, each with our own product line, all seeking to launch a regional facility where we could bring our products to be sold, processed, and/or distributed throughout the area. It's an ambitious idea. Many areas, including ours, have vibrant farmers' markets during the growing season. But those markets don't start until spring, they wrap up in fall, and the vendors have a long six months to wait before sales start again the following year. Imagine knowing that you'll be working all year long, but only paid for six months of that year. It's not a heartwarming (or wallet-warming) prospect. So many regions (including ours) are looking at ways to diversify what we sell, when, and to whom. A regional center that facilitated that diversification is a big deal, for a lot of folks. Without such infrastructure, each farm family is left to its own devices to not only produce food, but also process it, package it and deliver or distribute it in some cost effective (and legal) way. Many times, the financial outlay required for such infrastructure keeps it out of reach for family farms, so they don’t have any legal outlet for their production. That’s akin to fine-tuning the engine on a car with four flat tires. Your engine has enough power to move you anywhere you want to go, but you have no traction to actually move forward and get there. A regional processing, marketing and distribution center would take the pressure off each farming family to individually develop that infrastructure to reach those markets. Freed of that task, we can then turn our attention back to what we do best - growing healthy foods on healthy farms.
As wonderful as such a facility would be, there's a lot of work to be done planning, building, permitting and selling it. All the applicable regulations must be met, which can sometimes mean hitting a moving target. The details for who-pays-for-what all must be worked out. Potential customers must be surveyed and courted and wined and dined, to ensure that they don't merely say they'll buy from us only to skip out and shop at Costco when the time comes to open our doors. Scheduling has to be worked out such that producers not only have something ready to sell when the doors are opened, but also that they have products ready three months, six months and 15 months later. It's a careful choreography of production, marketing, politics, diplomacy and public relations. It doesn't always succeed. In fact, if we pull this off we'll be amongst the first to successfully do so. And there's a lot of wreckage from past attempts littering the course we must travel.
Only a few years ago I was involved in a similar project, with similarly high hopes and potential. We had the building, we had the producers, we had a public eagerly waiting for our products, and we had all the regulatory agencies on board and cooperative. That would have seemed to be sufficient, but it wasn't. Those who had promised tens of thousands in financial support only gave thousands. Those who promised thousands only gave hundreds. And many of the folks who promised money or time or materials gave nothing at all. After five years, the group disbanded after trying, and failing, to secure the funds we needed to proceed. It was a hard lesson in Dreams versus Reality.
So as I sat in that meeting tonight, I was torn between feeling optimistic that maybe this time we’ll succeed, versus feeling a sense of deja vu. I had definitely been here before, but the outcome of this latest attempt was still uncertain. To be sure, some of the details this time are different. But the vast majority of them are exactly the same as they were before. Call me a hopeless romantic that I'll pitch in again and try to succeed where before we failed. Thomas Palmer’s admonition “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is firmly in mind tonight. If anything else, perhaps I can provide something of a reality check for those in the group who haven't gone through this process yet, and still don't see the many pitfalls we have yet to face. On the other hand I don't want to be the wet blanket that keeps the project from moving forward. So I'll attend the meetings, try to listen for the most part, probably chime in when I see some opportunity or hazard, and we'll see what happens. I feel one part jaded, and one part excited that we're trying again to navigate this course.
The first day of spring is traditionally and officially celebrated on Equinox, that magical day every year when the sun is above the horizon exactly 12 hrs, no matter where you are on the planet. Not to take anything away from that day and all its significance, there are other ways to celebrate the arrival of springtime. One is the bursting forth of the coming season's new life, in the form of leaves or flowers. And one of the very first species to send forth such growth in North America is the witch hazel. Today, our witch hazel tree started opening its buds to reveal its wonderful little yellowish green flowers. It was a welcome sight.
The witch hazel is a contrarian in many ways, and that's part of why I like it so much. To start with, the flowers don't really look like flowers. The petals are extremely long and twisted, almost like confetti streamers. Secondly, the flowers emerge before the leaves emerge, where most common deciduous plants are the other way around. Third, the flowers don't smell sweet, they smell spicy. That's a nice alternative to what can sometimes be fruity overkill in the flower beds later in the year. And in fall, the small leaves turn a golden color that reminds me of the aspens from my native Colorado. When sunlight hits a witch hazel in her autumn colors, she just shines.
But this plant, whether as tall shrub or small tree, has much more to offer besides wacky flowers. It is a great friend to the herbalist, offering a powerful astringent and anti-inflammatory from its bark and leaves. Many folks have witch hazel astringent in their cosmetics or first aid cabinet without knowing where it came from. Yet this substance can ease everything from skin inflammation and irritation to bruises, diarrhea and even dysentery.
Witch hazel also has an interesting reputation as being the single best source of divining rods. For those of you who aren't familiar with divining rods, those are the tools used to "divine" sources of underground water. Those who can do such divining work are sometimes called water witches. It's a skill that can be learned, but is often passed down in families as a treasured inheritance. Some would claim it's all imagination and subjective perceptions, where perhaps the person was following subconscious cues in the landscape. Or perhaps it's all just charlatan theatrics, and the person actually already knew where the water seams were. I'm not so sure. Having come from dry country, yes I know there are often cues for water's presence in the landscape. The plant life and the wildlife patterns often indicate where water lay right beneath the surface. But I've known water witches who could walk a uniform pasture, without even subtle hints of water, and find the perfect spot to sink that well so that you find generous water only 50' down instead of a stingy well at 100' down. Now that's a skill to be treasured. If witch hazel is the branch of choice to accomplish that, I'll take their word for it.
Perhaps witch hazel's most important use for us is actually as something of an emotional balm. The end of January and beginning of February can be cold, damp, and sunless in the Pacific Northwest. Yes the days are finally starting to get longer, but we still have many days of chilling rain and clouds that never quite clear. Sometimes the temps can wander towards 50F but more typically they are down in the 40s and drop below freezing all too often. So the eye as well as the soul starts to yearn for signs of life, positive evidence that spring really is coming and the earth really is waking up from its slumber. The rain will cease, the skies will part, the sun will shine again and restless hands will once again dig in warm rich soil. So any harbinger of spring is welcome, particularly one as bright and cheerful as the witch hazel. Those yellowish-green streamers seem almost loud against the dark greens, browns and grays of a Pacific Northwest winter. The eye feasts with that kind of color against such a dark backdrop.
So I'll get out my planting trays, finalize my planting schedule, pull my seeds out of storage and get going on this year's first crops. If the witch hazel can find springtime like it can find water, there's no time to lose even when it looks like winter will never end. And planting is a task I'm happy to finally undertake. Thank goodness for witch hazel to signal that moment.
The farm where we buy our hay is what I would call a traditional farm, with all the familiar outbuildings we generally associate with American agricultural landscapes. The larger barn in particular is a gambrel-roofed beauty, made popular in the early 1900's on dairy farms around the country. These grand dames of agricultural architecture could house tremendous amounts of feed and shelter the herds from whatever vagaries the four seasons might bring. They were, and are, an endearing symbol of what some would call the Golden Age of American agriculture.
The big barn was added to the farm in the early 1930’s when it was in full production as a working dairy. The old dairy stanchions are still bolted to the wall, and there are four draft horse tie stalls with the names of the horses stenciled above - Marle, Cindi, Sylvia and Becky. More than once I found myself wondering what year those animals last resided in those stalls.
When the farmer I know bought the place in the early 60's, the man he bought it from had run the dairy for several decades, possibly since that big barn had gone up. I don't know much about that previous owner, except that he was tired of the dairy business. The big barn was showing some age at that point and needed quite a bit of work. The original foundation was sagging in places, wood rot had set in here and there, the roof leaked, and that previous owner just didn't have the energy to keep up with it anymore. So he was selling out. Yet the farmland was some of the best corn and pasture ground in the county, the other outbuildings were in decent repair, and business was as brisk as ever in the nearby county seat. That farm was well positioned to become a vibrant place again, given half a chance. The farm's big dairy barn may have been showing her age but she also continued to show her grace. She still had the original wainscoting, most of her rafters and floor joists were as solid as ever, and her loft could still hold a tremendous amount of harvested sunshine.
When the farmer I know bought it, he apparently put quite a bit of time and consideration into how to give that barn a new lease on life. He excavated the two corners that were built into the hillside, jacked up that end, and then had a new concrete foundation poured to replace the rotting foundation. He replaced the leaky, fire-prone cedar shake roof with metal roofing that has lasted to this day. He scraped and painted and re-glazed and 100 other tasks to clean up that old barn and get her fit for duty again. He then turned his attention to the rest of the property, and proceeded to bring that farm back to life. It has been farmed continuously now for over 100 years, making it one of the older farms in the area.
Yet time still marches on, and now that farmer has reached a point in his life where he is looking at the day not too far off when he'll have to turn the farm over to someone else. But to his credit, he will be turning over a farm that he has kept in very good condition. Not only are the fields still productive, most of the other outbuildings have been kept in good repair. Best of all, his grand old barn was recently awarded Heritage Barn status by the state, which puts her in very dignified company. That status brought with it a bit of fix-up money to keep her in good repair. While the farmer had already done considerable work in that regard, he is using that money to provide a few new touches - a new cupola to replace the rusted out original, along with new glazing for the windows and a brand new paint job. The old gal will have a brand new outfit as she enters her 80th year.
The new cupola has replaced the old one in the photo, the glazing work is about to start, and the painting will proceed shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, the farmer continues to work the grounds, and has partnered with other growers in the area, us included, to keep the outlying parcels tended and productive. I'm not sure which lucky soul will be tasked with working that farm after this generous, thoughtful, conscientious man hands over the reins. It might be us. It might be someone else. It might be a group of people tasked with ensuring this farm is maintained as a working farm into the foreseeable future. But whoever it is, they darn well better look after that big barn and all her graciousness. It's not enough to simply plow the ground, plant the crop, weed, harvest and sell at the end of the year. Farms themselves are entities in need of proper care and feeding, if they are to live out their multi-generational life spans with dignity and good function. That farm has been very fortunate to be managed by such careful hands over her considerable lifetime so far. There are many other equally worthy farms in our area, and in our nation, in need of such careful tending. May those other farms, perhaps rundown and neglected now, be similarly resurrected to their potential life-giving potentials. It is a privilege to be a part of that process.
Once in awhile, we get easy days. Sometimes, we have to schedule them in advance. Today was one of those scheduled, easy days.
I'm not sure if this is some unspoken reflection of the times, or simply a reflection of the folks we hang out with. But for quite awhile now, everyone we know is inhumanely busy. Some are busy because they have a houseful of young kids. Some are busy because they have a houseful of adolescent kids. Or maybe they babysit the grand kids, nieces and/or nephews while brothers, sisters or grown kids are at work. The job hours are getting longer, or that second job keeps us away from home several more hours per day. One friend is putting himself through a Master's program while working full time hours. Another friend has to commute two hours one way to her job. Many of our farming friends have their farm work as well as off-farm jobs. And my best friend has three part time jobs, trying to make ends meet after she lost her professional position a few years ago. Everyone is scrambling.
So the thought of taking a break from everything is never far from our minds, but it's rarely an opportunity that presents itself. Usually, we have to carve out time for a break, amid a list of gotta-do's that never seems to end. Yet we have learned, to our cost, that not taking those breaks only lands us in the realm of exhaustion, depression, bickering with coworkers or family members, and a profound disgust for the way things are going. Funny, it turns out we're not machines that can endlessly clock in and be productive and clock out again and show up tomorrow for another round. Even if we love our jobs, we all need a break. Whether we have time for it or not.
Some years ago, a couple we know invited us over for an afternoon of movies on the VHS player, maybe a game of cards, a pizza, and general-purpose visiting. The gal in that pair enjoyed spinning wool, as I do, so she invited me to bring my wheel and spend some time spinning while we visited. I took her up on that offer. I suppose we must have looked like two old village cronies, both sitting to our wheels and gossiping back and forth all afternoon. The fellow in that pair enjoys building airplane models, so he had his hobby table set up in the living room where he could work on his latest model while we were there. My husband, not to be left out, brought along some books of interest that he could page through without losing track of the conversation. It was one of the most pleasant, low-pressure days we'd had in a long time. The Hobby Day tradition was born.
Since then we've had countless Hobby Days. Different days will see different activities, as we bring along whatever activities seem inviting. Or we just visit. Or we just watch movies and laugh a lot. The only rule is that we have to have a relaxing time. We try to have a Hobby Day about once a month, but sometimes we'll go several months between. During those weeks without our Hobby Day, the days start to stretch out into an interminable long slog. I imagine it would be somewhat like the sands must have stretched out to the horizon, as the great camel caravans traveled the Silk Road. The much-anticipated arrival of Hobby Day would then be like arriving at an oasis, where a refreshing break gave us respite from the journey.
I love the work I do on the farm, but I have to admit it can be exhausting. So many things to do, so many cares, so many projects in various stages of completion (or non-completion). It seems ironic that the more we love a lifestyle, the more we need breaks from it sometimes. Or maybe it's just us. Whatever the case, those Hobby Days are sure lifesavers.
We got home from our Hobby Day tonight like coming home from a vacation - just a smidgen too soon for our preferences. The livestock were ready for their various forms of dinner, the rain had started again, my headlamp batteries were running low and the pig fence was shorting out again. Evening chores stretched a little late. But that's OK. I had enjoyed my time at the oasis, and I was ready to continue the journey. But I was already looking forward to our next Hobby Day.
Our young tom turkey began to gobble today. He has come of age, and is ready to breed.
Now, perhaps that doesn't sound like a big deal. But in a way, it's a reflection of one of the most important things we do here. You see, our turkey tom is a member of a heritage breed: a breed which used to be very important to American agriculture, but which for various reasons fell out of favor over the years. And now there are not many left. Some would argue that the shift to more profitable modern breeds is a good thing. After all, what about survival of the fittest? But that implies that modern breeds are a good fit for modern agricultural conditions. Sadly, that is not necessarily the case.
This nation was founded on hundreds and thousands of small, diversified family farms raising a wide variety of livestock on homegrown or locally produced foods. Those animals had to be hardy in a wide variety of climates, resistant to a wide variety of naturally occurring diseases and other challenges. They had to be able to reproduce stout, vigorous offspring for the next generation. And they have to produce meat, milk, eggs, feathers, fleeces, and/or horsepower with those local materials, cost effectively enough that farmers could affordably use them for that purpose.
Yet our national production model shifted. Faster, cheaper transportation allowed farms to ship in feeds from farther away, and ship out products to distant markets. That in turn encouraged larger-scale livestock facilities which could optimize those shipments of feeds in, and meats out. Animals were housed in more convenient production units rather than in more traditional small farm herds. Chemical and nutritional developments encouraged breeds that could tolerate higher nutrient density feeds, to stimulate growth and production. Finally, the most fundamental requirement for any animal species, namely the ability to reproduce itself, became an inconvenience to industrialized agriculture. Mechanized breeding methods were developed to replace dependence upon an animal’s natural breeding cycles. As if that wasn’t bad enough, some breeds were developed which could no longer naturally breed even if given the opportunity to do so. Turkeys were one such unfortunate species.
That model was touted as THE model for several decades. Then the pendulum of economic history began to swing away from the extremes that allowed that agricultural model to emerge. Transportation costs began to climb, and with them, now a whole host of other long-distance production costs are going up. If corn can't be shipped from the middle of the nation cheaper than it can be produced here, we either need to start growing our own corn or find a replacement. If we can breed and raise birds here cheaper than we can have day old poults flown in, then we need to start raising them here. And if industrialized livestock breeds cannot survive outside their artificial conditions, the natural answer is to resurrect the older breeds that can. Happily, thanks to the foresight and dedication of many breed purists and enthusiasts, we still have the option to do that.
Many individuals refused to adopt the newer, “better” breeds and simply abandon those breeds that had worked so well for them. They kept those old bloodlines going even in the face of ridicule for “hanging onto the old ways”. Thankfully they ignored such ridicule and kept going. That has given our society access to all that genetic material, the diversity that allows small family farms like ours to pick and choose breeds that will work well for our purposes, given our conditions. If not for those breeders, working through the years to keep these bloodlines alive, we would have very few choices right now as the pendulum swings away from a time of surplus to a time of thrift.
Our tom turkey is a member of one such heritage breed, called the Narragansett. That particular breed was developed in Rhode Island in the 1800’s as a hardy bird, active and strong, able (and happy) to forage its own feed, avoid predators, produce vibrant young poults and provide a sizable high-quality carcass at harvest time. They take a little longer to reach sexual maturity and/or harvest weight, and they require a little more feed to get there. But they don't get sick as easily as modern breeds, they can tolerate a wider range of feeds more readily, and best of all, they can breed naturally. So, Mr. Tom Turkey, you keep gobbling your little heart out. You'll be given your chance to contribute to the next generation, and keep your proud breed alive for awhile yet to come.
For more information on heritage breeds and the work being done to save them, visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.
I received an email this morning that made my whole day. To paraphrase, the email said that a husband and wife, living in Suburban America, had always dreamed of starting a farm. Yet they had no experience and they had concerns about how best to proceed with that dream. They had seen our farm website and had been inspired, and they asked if we would help them start making plans for how best to proceed.
I sent back an email saying we would be delighted to help them in any way we could.
At any given time, regardless of our jobs or age or socioeconomic status, we are all students. There is always so much more to learn. Yet we also have experiences and skills and talents that we have gained during our lives. Sometimes we take those skills for granted because we are focused on where we're going, not on where we've been. Sometimes we don't feel we know enough, and we doubt what we know. Alternately, sometimes we feel a little full of ourselves, and figure we've learned "enough" only to have Universe reach out and slap us around a little until we humble up a bit. But one way or the other, at any given time, we have a certain amount of information and experience and skills under our belt. We have the ability, and I believe the responsibility, to pass on what we've learned so far even as we continue to learn new skills or refine existing ones. It can sometimes be something of an exercise in juggling, to be sure. All this business of teaching others even as we continue to learn ourselves. But it apparently is one of the oldest, and most successful ways, that human beings have passed down information and skills through the ages.
Many agricultural analysts have pointed out recently that the average farmer is getting older, and fewer individuals in the next generation are ready, willing and able to take their places in farming's future. I do believe the average farmer is getting older, but I don't buy it for a minute that folks don't want to farm anymore. Rather, I think that folks who feel a tickle to plant things, or a yearning to raise animals, have the seeds of agriculture already sprouting within them. So the question is not how to cajole or coerce or bribe more folks into a discipline that they wouldn't want to be in otherwise. The question is how to encourage folks who already want to be there. How to impress upon them that this business, this craft, this art and science, can be taught successfully. That's regardless of who they are, where they are, how old they are, and what challenges they may have. I'm firmly convinced that agriculture is one of humanity's defining attributes. We've been farming too long as a species to have lost the will to farm, in only a few generations. That would be like birds losing interest in flight, dogs losing interest in cats, and cats losing interest in warm sunny windows. It is an integral part of who we are.
So the trick for those who are interested in farming, but not already involved in farming, is to hook them up with mentors. Folks who can guide them from a state of unknowing to a state of knowing, whether that is in animal husbandry, soil science, horticulture, farm machinery, genetics, or whatever. When someone looks at our farm, or any farm, they often see an imposing image of a completed operation. Oh, goodness, let me assure you we're only getting started. And we had lots of help along the way. Even now, we seek out expertise in a variety of categories as we continue to learn about how best to keep this farm running, and improve it along the way. Yet we started with a bare piece of ground. Whatever we yet need to learn, we have learned enough to get where we are. And that information is worth something to someone who hasn't gotten that far yet.
So even as I continue to consult with various mentors of my own, about how best to market our veggies, or how to tweak our goat herd nutrition, or how to get the pigs bred, I am honored, and honor-bound, to pass on whatever I have learned so far to those wonderful individuals who reached out to me and asked for help. May anyone who has ever had an interest in learning about farming, find someone to teach them. May anyone who has ever successfully planted a seed, tilled a field or raised up an animal, share that information with others. Please pass the torch. It's what keeps knowledge alive.
I'm doing something new this year on the farm, related to my planning efforts. In previous years, I would feel fairly organized when thinking about any given project - A needs to happen before B, which needs to happen before C, which needs to happen before D. That was all well and good, until you realize that I'd have ten projects going at any given time. That was in addition to my "normal" activities. It was easy to lose track of stuff. So easy, it happened all the time. When I was driving around one day and saw a bumper sticker that said "King of the Unfinished Project", and realized I could easily be Queen, I knew something had to change. So I took my farm planning to a new level: simultaneous tracking of all my projects, all my tasks, all in one place. Yikes.
I had mulled this new approach for awhile, and wasn't sure how well it would turn out. I wanted to do what seemed almost impossible - track my crop schedule, building repair/construction schedule, pasture management schedule, forest management schedule, livestock schedule, and heck let's toss in some classes too. All in one place. My first thought was one of those big laminated 12-month wall calendars, but I quickly realized that it would need to take up whole side of a big barn, before I'd have room to write down everything I needed to do. So that idea was out. Then I thought about something on butcher paper, which wasn't quite as big as a barn but would allow me to draw custom-sized squares for the days and weeks and months. "Yea, sure" I thought, "and I'll still be drawing the darn thing in June while my fields go to weeds." As much as I hesitated, I knew the work should be done on the computer. Sigh.
Ok, so which program? MS-Word came to mind (or any of the word processing open-source products out there), but that quickly became clunky. I wanted the ability to log my weeks across the top, my major farm categories down the side (such as market crops, fodder crops, livestock, cover crops, buildings, fencing, etc), and scroll quickly back and forth amongst the individual squares. I also wanted to color-code the months so that I could see at a glance when I was in a new month. MS-Word quickly retreated into the background, and my good friend MS-Excel was the last man standing, so to speak. Then I realized that I was thinking to create something similar to what I'd already seen done in my Farm Forms crop planning software, which I've written about previously. Except here, I wasn't merely managing all my crops. I would be tracking the whole shebang.
Construction of my master spreadsheet actually went fairly quickly. I put in the calendar weeks across the top, one column per week, then color-coded each month with easy-to-look-at shades. It already looked friendlier, sort of reminding me of the old Girl Scouts cookies order form from way back in my Girl Scouts days. Then I put all my standard farm activities along the side - market crops, herbs, grains, fodder crops, livestock, building, fences, equipment, etc. Then I started to fill in what task needed to be done for each item, and when. I could zoom in and out to read the fine print, or get an overview. And best of all, I was simultaneously building a weekly go-do list for myself. I could be as detailed as I wanted, or as general. For instance, I listed salad greens 16 times, to show the every-other-week succession planting schedule I wanted this year. I listed peas three times - spring peas, summer bush peas for shelling, and autumn peas that would last me well into the tail end of the year. I was even able to use alternating patterns to show when plants were in trays, in the ground, or being harvested, or when fields were fallow, planted to cool season cover crops, or being tilled. Similarly, each livestock species got its own line. Breeding dates, birthing dates, shearing dates, pasture turnout dates and butchering dates were all there. I was able to schedule many of these tasks around other scheduling items so I never loaded up any given week with too much. I also grouped like animals together (such as goats and sheep) so that similar tasks could be grouped together. Amazingly, in a relatively short period of time I was able to come up with a fairly organized list of go-do's for the whole year, without worrying that some critical task would be on some other list, and subsequently forgotten about. This was the electronic version of "a place for everything, and everything in its place."
I've heard it said that a farmer should always carry that master plan around in his or her head, and refer to it often as he or she goes through the details of the day. I'll continue to do that, and I'll still scribble notes to myself as needed in the field. But I'm already looking forward to starting the day, or the week, with a single list of what needs to happen, knowing that I'm not forgetting some crucial task that will haunt me later. Doing away with that worry will help me focus on whatever tasks I have that day. And hopefully I'll sleep better too.
"Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day.
Fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way.
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town,
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way.
Tired of lying in the sunshine, staying home to watch the rain.
And you are young, and life is long, and there is time to kill today.
And then one day you find, ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun...."
from the song Time by Pink Floyd, 1973
Time management is as critical on the farm as money management, if not more so. We can sell things to bring in more money; but we cannot casually bring in more time. Often, any combination of existing products or activities squeezes a schedule that is already painfully full. Many of the farmers I know, if not all of them, are insanely busy during a good chunk of the year. That seems to be the case regardless of how big the farm or how much money is coming in the door. Farms apparently eat time regardless of size.
If we allow that to run unimpeded, we start to hemorrhage our days just like careless spending can bleed away our money. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Just as a careful analysis of our money habits can result in significant savings, so can a similar analysis of how we spend our hours.
Take chores for instance. Many farmers began their livestock career with just a few animals, and either by design or by accident that number grew over time. Yet our infrastructure was set up for that smaller population. So we tack on stalls and paddocks and pastures, but without much thought to the efficiency of our growing layout. We just tack things on as we have the space, energy and money to do so. Then one day we wake up to find a layout that takes three times longer to manage than it should.
Livestock producers are not the only ones who suffer from this “chores creep”. A few herbs purchased or grown for the kitchen windowsill can lead to shelves of plants in the living room window, or a bedroom converted to a greenroom. Then pots show up on the patio outside, and one year the front yard is somehow converted to planting beds. Bags of soil amendments are shoved into the shed next to the rake, and it takes 20 minutes to dig out the rake when you need it. Half a dozen tomato pots can be watered in a few minutes, but when that blossoms into five hundred tomato plants in a greenhouse, irrigation via garden hose is an all day, every day job.
Fortunately, producers have access to a variety of equipment, techniques and options to make their operations more efficient. It can be anything from grouping plants together with similar irrigation needs, to grouping all the pregnant animals together so you only need to check one building in the middle of the night for animals in labor. Or better yet, install a baby monitor or remote camera in the barn so that you don’t even need to leave the house until a critter is actually in labor. Even locating hay near the hayburners can save you time walking to and from hay storage to stalls and yards. As the farm grows, more costly equipment and materials can quickly pay for themselves in saved labor.
None of us can manufacture time, but we can change our operations to shave time. Time not spent on chores, or planting, or harvest or health care, is time we can spend figuring out new value-added products, study new farm management techniques, or follow up with existing and prospective customers. Or, dare I say it, we can steal away for twenty minutes to read a little more in that favorite book, catch up with friends, or go to bed early. Maybe we cannot manufacture time, but on the farm we can choose how we spend our time. With practice, we can simultaneously save time, while we spend time, doing what we love. I don’t know whether that breaks some relativity rules, but it works.
Pig romance is in the air on the farm today. One of our gilts is in heat, and it’s time to find Mr. Right. But that’s not as straightforward as it might seem.
There are three basic ways a small scale farm can breed their pigs - bring a boar to the farm, take the gilts or sows to the boar, or use Artificial Insemination. As convenient and "natural" as the first two options may seem compared to the third, they don't pencil out very often. Consider bringing the boar to the farm, either permanently or temporarily. Boars are large, powerful, sometimes aggressive creatures. Even those that are well acclimated to human beings can turn on you in the blink of an eye, and do some real damage. Not because they're mean, but because they want and need to be king of their perceived hill. If they decide you're interfering with that, they'll tell you. Boars can reach 1500 pounds, and have large, powerful jaws that can shred human flesh without much effort. Bringing a boar onto a farm requires a whole lot of robust infrastructure to ensure he stays where he belongs and we stay safe. If a farm doesn't want that responsibility to house them well, they shouldn't house them at all.
Even if farms are ready, willing and able to house boars competently, those boars need to be kept relatively well occupied. No one hogs down the groceries as fast as a hog. If that hog isn't making babies on a frequent basis, he becomes a very expensive lawn ornament very quickly. Unfortunately, even if he does have plenty of ladies to service, his virility starts to fall off relatively quickly - well before he succumbs to other old age issues. Some hog producers simply let their boars service the ladies for a few years, then harvest them for meat. That can work very effectively - or not- depending on a characteristic call boar taint. Boar taint is caused by two chemicals called androstenone and skatole. Production, metabolism and storage of those two chemicals in the body will vary with both environmental and genetic circumstances. If those chemicals are present in sufficient concentrations at slaughter, the boar’s meat is so offensive it’s inedible.
Similarly, taking the gilt or sow to the boar can be a challenge. She's not as big, or as aggressive, as the boar. But she's big enough and stubborn enough that a small scale producer needs to plan carefully for how to safely move her. We have trained our pigs to come when we call, to yield to our directions, and we have the basic ability to "steer" them where we want them to go. But all that nice training goes right out the window (sometimes literally) if you try to force them into a strange place that they don't want to go. You find yourself wondering if there isn't some better way to do this. There is.
Artificial insemination is a relatively new technique, only used widely for a few decades at most. But it has revolutionized both the options, and opportunities, for small scale producers. For producers like us who do not want the hassle or expense of housing a boar, nor the cost of taking our sows off-farm to be bred, it is nearly ideal. It's like having hundreds of prime candidate boars right down the street, available to come a-visitin' whenever our girls are ready, but without any of the fencing, feed or housing requirements. And best of all, the sows are so agreeable when in estrus that the actual insemination is usually a very simple event. Any producer, even a small, not-particularly-strong lady producer like myself, can accomplish it without assistance.
So when we realized one of our gilts was coming into season today, we made plans to get our batch of AI supplies in time for her next cycle. There is some careful timing to be done, to ensure we get good fertilization. But compared to our other options, those requirements are easy. The next few days I'll look through various catalog pages advertising this-or-that boar, and I'll choose Mr. Right from amongst all those contenders. I'll pick up the phone, order some of his unique goodness to be shipped overnight to us, then keep it chilled until That Magical Moment when the sow is ready. No expensive fencing, housing, or transit needed. I don’t even need to take her out to dinner and a movie. I suppose I could buy her flowers, but she’d probably just eat them. So I’ll settle for a quiet celebration. Just her, me, the AI straw, and a little bit of good timing. Then approximately four months later, piglets!
Today I had one of those days where nothing went right. Well, almost nothing.
There's a sense amongst urban folks (and I used to be one of them) that life on the farm is easy. Pleasant. Relaxed. Lemonade under a shady tree, baby animals bouncing around green pastures (perfectly fenced and clipped), and laser-straight rows of corn, tasseling out under a perfect July sky. While that occasionally happens, there are also days when the weather is terrible, the animals have gotten out, the crops aren't doing well for whatever reason and that alarm clock goes off way too early (or the day stretches way too late). Happily, most days on the farm are somewhere in between those two extremes. But today I spent most of the day towards the "this is not a good day" end of the spectrum.
First of all, the weather has been lousy lately. Rain, and then wind, and then more rain, oh now we're getting snow, then wind, then rain. These storm cycles are nothing new, and we know this time of year can be challenging. Still, it's really discouraging to stand out in the rain and see all the things that you really wanted to get done before the rain started to fall. That roof on the chicken house leaks. That walkway got muddy before we could put down landscape fabric and substrate. That spare watering tank didn't get cleaned and tipped over and put away last fall, and now it's fully of gunky mossy icy cold water. It's pouring again, I'm only halfway through chores, my hands are cold, my feet are cold, my hat is already soaked through and this hay got wet at some point so I can't feed it out. Back to the hay shed (slogging through that mud again) for another bale.
During such days, it's easy to question what we do and why. Most of my friends have office-type jobs. Right about now they're at their desks, nice and warm and dry, maybe with a cuppa of their favorite caffeinated beverage in their hands. They're not getting rained on, they're not splattering mud with every step, and they sure as heck don't have to wade through a mob of impatient chickens hungry for breakfast. During moments like this, I wonder why I ever left that environment. Thankfully I don't wonder for very long.
I try to remember what it was like to get up early enough to beat traffic. To get dressed not to meet my own needs but to win the approval of others. To hustle off to work because of someone else's schedule. To attend meetings where I may not say a word and even if I did, my experience and ideas and skill sets had to compete against the prevailing office political structure. I could have invented the very best mousetrap ever conceived by Humanity. But Compliance has to sign off on it, Testing staff won't have time to look at it for at least six weeks, Manufacturing is having a dispute with their suppliers and rollout has been postponed. Plus it doesn't fit in well with Marketing's advertising campaign. While in Corporate America, I often found myself feeling like a cog that didn't fit very well into the machine.
So I come back to my current situation, standing in the rain and gazing out at this rattletrap farm I've put together. Yes, we have mud, but not a lot. Not as much as previous years and each year we get better at predicting it, avoiding it and minimizing it once it occurs. The chickens have a leak in their roof but they're eating well, laying well, and just as perky as they should be. All the four-legged critters are healthy and in good flesh, here on the far side of Christmas with springtime still a ways away. The garden beds are dormant now, but they're ready for when spring does roll around. On my little farm, I dress for my own needs, get up to meet my schedule, and the only politics I have to worry about are which hen is pecking whom, and which goat is headbutting whom.
My reverie broke when I glanced up on the hill and noticed one of my livestock guardian dogs watching me. Cougar came to us as a broken individual, his spirit crushed by a string of well-intentioned owners who didn't know how to work with his proud race. He also spent a fair amount of time as a stray, wandering the landscape trying to find a place to fit in. Much like I wandered the landscape of office work, wondering where I was supposed to fit in. As I watched him watching me, I realized we'd both found our forever homes - him guarding a farm just as his ancestors have done for millennia, and me managing the farm just as my ancestors have done for millenia. Not every day will be perfect. But most days will be good enough to justify keeping our respective jobs. I walked up the hill and gave him some friendly pets. He thumped his tail a few times but then gave me a look like "sorry, Mom, but I gotta go back to work now. It's important." Yea, buddy, I understand. Your job is important and you do it well. I guess I should remember that mine is important too. Sometimes I'm not sure I do my job as well as he does his, but it's a good job to have. Despite the occasional bad day.
What price an egg? That was the topic of discussion today as we looked forward to this year’s sales.
The topic of how to price products for market is something of an art. If our pricing was too low, we would fail to cover our costs and lose money. If our pricing was too high, we would make more per sale but suppress potential sales, ironically also resulting in a net red day for the bottom line. There is between those two extremes a small range of “just right prices” which would cover costs yet not drive away sales. Our goal, then, should be to identify that magic sweet spot. In between us and that magical best price lay a bunch of factors we sometimes refer to as “gazintas”.
Now, perhaps you’ve never heard of a gazinta. It’s a pretty simple idea, and it all started in elementary arithmetic. Many moons ago, my husband’s math teacher was going over the multiplication tables, probably in a very tired, bored voice. You know, two goes into two once, two goes into four twice, two goes into six three times, two goes into eight four times, etc. But somehow along the way, “goes into” became “gazinta”. As accidental as that word's birth may have been, it became a very special word over time. That’s because it helped define those things which are needed to build larger things. Components, if you will. Or building blocks. That word came to mean any item, or items, real or conceptual, which are put together to create something. So, in that expanded definition, chips and salsa and beans are all gazintas for nachos. Brainstorming, evaluation, development, testing, implementation and re-valuation are conceptual gazintas for a new product. On the farm, feed and housing and labor are some of the big gazintas for egg production.
The trick when pricing any particular thing is to identify all the gazintas. Unfortunately, while some gazintas are brightly colored and easy to see, other gazintas are camouflaged and are almost invisible. Feed is an obvious gazinta. The appreciated costs of the buildings, fencing and land for egg production are nearly transparent gazintas. Yet those costs are real. I suspect they are often ignored simply because they are so hard to see. Exactly how much water does a single hen need over the course of her lifetime? How much water does a single hen need per egg? One could go crazy trying to chase down all those gazintas. Oh, and I should note that gazintas are very good at hiding, at eluding capture, and at changing shapes when you finally do lay hands on them. Darned creatures are downright slippery.
One way of putting approximate value on those gazintas is to think about how those gazintas could be used for something else. If I have 10,000 square feet dedicated to my laying flock, and sold them all tomorrow, what else could I do with that land? With that building? With that electricity and water and heat? Could I grow something more valuable? At that point, suddenly the gazintas take on a new meaning - elements which can be used in more than one way. Therefore their chosen application should be worth more than the alternatives. If not, is it perhaps time for a switch? Running through a few conceptual models (making sure to use the conceptual gazintas listed above), we can at least determine if any likely alternate product would be as net valuable as the hens.
I don’t mean to make light of this whole analytical exercise. It does get tedious, and sometimes concepts like gazintas help us to wrap our brains around tasks that otherwise would seem too nebulous or vague. Yet that information can help us in very concrete ways to ensure our farms make the very best use of our particular set of gazintas, whatever those happen to be.
In our conversations today, we weren’t able to capture all the gazintas. But we did corral enough of them to determine that yes, eggs are still a very good product for us to be selling, compared to other possibilities. We identified a range of prices which covered our known and estimated costs, yet were competitive with market rates. So we know we’ll be able to capture a reasonable share of sales in the several markets we’ll participate in this year. It’s an exercise we go through every year now, with every product we sell. Those gazintas may be wily, but with proper care and feeding they can become downright cooperative. But always remember - never turn your back on a gazinta, no matter how tame. There’s always the risk it’ll run away, or even strike out and bite you, when you’re not looking.
Today was one of those rare days when we took off the work clothes, put on the town clothes, and spent the evening at a purely social event, a Robert Burns Dinner. Robert Burns was a poet, born in Scotland in the 1700’s, and taken before his time at the tender age of 37. During that brief life, he wrote over 600 poems, many of them about the working life of the poor, the disenfranchised, the common man of his native land. Burns’ poems, written in the dialect of Scotland’s commoner, celebrated that cultural identity even as it brought that culture into the parlors and towers of the day’s rich and elite. Thanks to his work, Scots could look upon their nation’s history, culture and arts with fondness and pride, regardless of what their social standing was in the world at that time. Even 200 years later, his poetry speaks to anyone who works with their hands, scratching a living amongst elite who don’t seem to care. His work celebrates the unique language, cuisine, and stoic humor of a culture which otherwise may simply have been ignored long enough to finally be forgotten. Tonight’s meal, the bagpipes, the poetry and even the haggis, were all a celebration of that life’s work.
I am mostly Irish by bloodlines, but I almost certainly also have Scot and British blood in my veins as well. So these readings, these dishes, the bagpipes and the Parade of the Haggis wasn’t some distant foreign concept. It was my ancestry. My paternal great grandfather came to America in 1898 from Ireland as a young man of 24. He had only the clothes on his back, fleeing a country that had been ravaged by the Great Famine and which had no future for him. He probably had been raised on a farm, the ownership of which had once been in the family but had been lost, or forfeit. While casual information of Ireland’s Potato Famine would seem to indicate a purely biological disease issue, modern analysis of Ireland’s famine decades has shown how economic structures and political control wielded more devastation than any plant disease ever could have. Suffice here to say that the tragedy was largely manufactured. Economic policy first forced Irish farmers to grow monocrops that had poor disease resistance to the native conditions. Then those policies either drove Irish land owners off their lands to work in town, or into starvation’s arms. Land ownership then fell not to descendants but to the county’s British landlord system. As a result, Ireland either buried or bled her people out to the rest of the world for decades, where they were received as beggars if they were received at all.
A dismal tale, to be sure. And while Burns’ poetry predates those events, his Scots heritage had no shortage of similar suppression. The miserable thing is, such policies and economic minefields still exist today, in our very own beloved country, with all the same risks. Small scale farmers and producers feel the economic and political squeeze on many fronts today. Some of those pressures are perhaps unavoidable, as our continent fills ever more with a growing population (not only from without but also from within). Other pressures are manufactured, with economic and political rules that encourage corporate ownership of huge tracts of land, evacuated of the human element in favor of planting, tillage and harvesting machinery that can cover hundreds (or thousands) of acres at a time. The small family farmer that built this country, often fresh from some other native society's own manufactured calamities, has now again heard the old song “get big or get out.” To quote George Santayana, “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.” More specifically, Frances Moore Lappe cautioned "Without power over our food, any notion of democracy is empty."
The Robert Burns dinner was a sobering reminder of what can be if we fail to learn from the past, and fail to preserve not merely the upper echelons of society but also the fundamental bases. If a nation cannot feed herself, she cannot long maintain her sovereignty. Yet as Burns demonstrated, a celebration of any nation’s most humble traditions can strengthen her soul and help her stand tall regardless of current economic conditions. So to Robert Burns, from 200 years away, I say “thank you”. And to all those homegrown festivals around the world which celebrate the local, the traditional, and the ancestral, I salute you. In closing I’ll quote what has become my favorite Robert Burns poem, A Man’s A Man For A’ That:
(to help with translation of some unfamiliar terms, click here)
Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.
What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.
Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
A prince can mak' a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.
Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.
I spent the day today doing what us Irish folk love doing most - talking to people. It wasn’t just social visiting, or gossiping, or trading tall stories over a pint down at the pub. It was substantial talk, the kind that changes how we move through the world. And it’s always such a privilege when we get to share in this kind of interaction.
The first conversation was with a woman having problems with coyotes raiding her large layer flock. I first learned of her issues when she emailed to one of the livestock lists I’m on, asking whether a livestock guardian dog might be a good idea. Having worked now with livestock guardian dogs for several years, and having rescued four adult dogs from either being strays or being in bad working situations, I wanted to ensure her questions were answered, her immediate concerns met, her long-term goals figured out and put into motion, and that any dogs involved would truly be a good fit for her farm. And her farm be a good fit for the dog. We’re not done with that conversation yet. But I was happy to exchange lots of ideas and “maybe this but not that” with a gal who had been sleeping out in her barns and pastures at night, standing watch over her flocks. Now that’s a long night. Hopefully we’ve had enough information go back and forth that she can sleep inside soon. And sleep well knowing her animals are safe.
The second conversation was equally productive. One of the members of another email list mentioned in passing that he had put together a small handbook on home-scale and farm-scale solar power, such that homeowners and farm/ranch managers could do much of their own system design and construction work to create their own renewable energy. The concept of helping homeowners and farm/ranch managers not only design and build but also maintain their own alternative energy sources is just amazing to me. The stuff of sci-fi merely 40 years ago is now off-the-shelf technology, helping folks provide for their own needs. He and I talked about putting together a number of small systems for our operation here, such that I could have power in our various outbuildings and remote field locations without running extension cords from the main fuse box. And I won’t be fueling some Middle Eastern or Asian conflict to meet my power needs. Now that’s useful technology.
The third conversation was not only productive on a homestead scale, but exciting on a community scale. Small grains production in this country used to be a community affair. Farms would raise small plots of grain each year, not only for human but also livestock consumption. Kids, neighbors, family and friends would be involved in the harvest and processing of those crops. Such harvests would become community events - harvest festivals, threshing bees and shucking potlucks were a few of the ties that knit communities together. Then with the advent of larger and larger harvesting equipment, many of those events faded into memory, and then that knowledge started to fade from memory as well. But now, for a variety of reasons, we’re talking about raising small grains again. Today’s conversation focused on how to harvest, process and store small grains. Older small-scale harvesting equipment such as rattletrap threshing machines, binders, sickle bar mowers and the queen of harvests herself, the Allis Chalmers All Crop pull-behind combine, are coming out of the sheds, getting reconditioned and once again used for the purposes they were designed for so many decades ago. Neighborhood mills are grinding grain into local label products. Even micro-distilleries are popping up around the country, to take advantage of the unique regional grain characteristics. And locavores are closing the loop in their quest for the 100 mile diet. It’s been 20 years since I’ve attended a threshing bee, and I’m excited that such events may yet be a part of my future. Amber waves of grain are returning to farming communities around the nation.
These conversations are of course all just the starting point for the hard work yet to come. But those seeds of thought, of possibilities, of intentions, are being sown widely this year in our fine nation. We’re shifting away from the mentality of “this isn’t working anymore” into conversations about what we CAN do and what WILL work. Creative, homegrown solutions, not only to provide for our immediate needs but also the needs of our families, our neighbors and our communities. Being a part of that ongoing conversation is such a privilege. Let’s keep talking.
I spent a good part of today getting to know some new friends. The friends’ names are Quickbooks and Market Farm Forms.
I came into the accounting side of the farm with quite a bit of resistance. I believe the phrase “kicking and screaming” is a pretty good description. I figured for a long time that I could just keep track of stuff in my head. Then there’s days I can’t even remember what day it is, which pretty much cancelled out that notion. Then I figured I could come up with my own records, first on paper and then in a combination of Word and Excel (or the shareware versions of each.) Well, let’s just say that one mistake made in one formula late at night can replicate through all your links and cause a major headache, because no one else was checking my work. Additionally, each year we saw more money coming in, (and more money going out too). Yet the farm's net income hadn't budged much beyond subsoil levels. I knew something needed to change.
Perhaps it was time for an approach that had already been tested and checked and put through its paces and pushed hard by other folks, and was still afloat. Add to that a few notes of the 'You Owe Us' variety from the IRS, which convinced me that perhaps the time had come to take the accounting and planning aspect of my farming more seriously. So I hesitantly bought Quickbooks and Market Farm Forms, hoping I hadn’t wasted my money.
The decision to buy Quickbooks didn’t require much shopping on my part. It was actually a requirement of my accountant. Right there shows you how far I’ve come. Now “my accountant” is a part of my farming language. I came to that kicking and screaming too. I’ll never forget my first meeting with my beloved accountant, when I brought what I thought was a set of very organized records. She looked at me like "you're kidding, right?" Let’s just say my very organized records were gibberish. But she helped me sort through them all, make sense of what I’d done the last few years, what records counted and what records didn’t, how to set them up better, and how best to not only pay myself better, but also get myself back on terra firma with the IRS. If there are saints walking amongst us, surely she’s one of them. At that point, if she’d told me I needed to learn Sanskrit for my books, I probably would have gone along with it. So being told to go buy Quickbooks was quite a bit easier to swallow. And the best part is, now I have a much better idea of where my money is coming from, where it’s going, where I want it to go and how I want it to work for me. Now that’s a nice position to be in.
The decision to buy Market Farm Forms came from much the same experience. I had limped along with my own records and planning tools for awhile but I can’t say I was satisfied. I’d miss my projections on dates to maturity, harvest timing, harvest amounts, income, or some combination. While I was doing this as a hobby, and/or as a household function, those mistakes weren’t a big deal. But when I started to look to earn some of my income this way, suddenly those mistakes were costing me money. And customers. And time. And it happened repeatedly. Thick as I can be, and stubborn as I can be, even I had to admit that my existing system wasn’t working. So I asked around to see what planning and record keeping tools were available, and what folks thought about them. Market Farm Forms went right to the top of the list pretty quickly. I’ve only started to use it in the last few weeks as I gear up for the 2011 growing season, but already I’ve seen things in their package that I never thought to do for myself. Things which made me go “Aha!” or otherwise recognize a hole in my previous farm planning efforts.
It’s always something of a personal decision, how far we’re going to take any given aspect of our occupation, whether it be farming or doctoring or lawyering or teaching or whatever. It’s also a matter of pride I suppose, deciding that we already know enough about something, versus admitting that we don’t. I had already accomplished some nice goals with livestock production, and I was well on my way to accomplishing some nice goals with my crop production as well. I might have been satisfied with that, but my earnings were still so low that I had to work off-farm jobs. That drove me crazy. I knew other farmers were making very respectable money at their work. What were they doing that I wasn’t doing? In the end, if my record-keeping and my bookkeeping was holding me back, I’m glad I figured that out sooner rather than later. Now I can move forward with my 2011 farm plans, with some confidence that I’ll actually get where I’m going. And this year, perhaps my wallet won’t show so much wear and tear along the way.
Our storm arrived, a little later than expected but just as energetic as predicted.
One of the benefits of modern American rural living is that you still have contact with most of the rest of the world, via the Internet. Usually that’s just fine; I can turn on, or off, that connection as I prefer. But some days, like today, we stay glued to the forecasts and that leads to something of an anticipation overload: how much snow will we really get? When will it start and when will it stop? What will the roads be like? How much wind? What’s the latest radar? What’s the latest satellite? I sometimes wonder if this orgy of information is really such a good thing. I found myself today trying to remember what it felt like as a child to magically have it start snowing. That was always such a joy. I wonder if I’ve lost that enthusiasm because the surprise is gone, or because I’m responsible for cleaning up the results. Either way, I miss that enjoyment.
This particular storm didn’t really get going until after evening chores, so we had this brooding knowledge of its approach hanging over us all day. In a way I’m glad it came late because that gave us nearly the whole day to do whatever we still needed to do in preparation (which wasn’t much). The downside of that is that the later it starts, the later it stops, and the later I get to bed. The surprise with this particular storm was the winds. The forecast had predicted winds, but only after the storm had warmed from snow to rain. I guess the winds didn’t read the forecast because they arrived first. The subsequent snowfall was blizzard-like which we don’t see out here very often. It reminded me of the prairie blizzards we used to get in Colorado where I grew up. I guess I answered my own question about the joy of a snowstorm - the winds provided the surprise but I couldn’t enjoy them much with thoughts of trees coming down in bad places. I wonder what it would take to reclaim that joy; perhaps a farm without trees that can smash buildings. That would probably help.
I knew with the snowfall (and especially with the wind) I’d need to check the stock overnight at least once, just to make sure we didn’t have storm damage. So the late arrival meant I wouldn’t be getting to bed anytime soon. That’s the way it goes sometimes. Still, there’s something special about being out in a storm at night, when no one else is out and no sounds from the road. Just me and Ma Nature, sharing the evening. Sometimes I enjoy those quiet moments. Tonight I was on a mission to finish up and get back inside so I could warm up and dry off again. Not even the dogs wanted to be out in this stuff. Still, it’s good to acknowledge the boss at any given time and She’s definitely the boss. We can put a man on the moon but we can’t turn off the sky. I’m not sure I want to live long enough to see us able to. Hopefully we never will.
One of my farming mentors once told me that “farmers live and die by the weather.” Many recent improvements in livestock husbandry and cropping systems have reduced that fragility, at least a bit. Cool season extenders, all-weather shelters, tank de-icers, and the like all take a bit of the edge off. But just as there’s something special about standing out in the midst of a storm in the middle of the night, there’s also something very special about checking on the stock and finding them all safe and warm and dry in the buildings that you put together with your own hands. It’s certainly not a mastery of nature, per se. But it’s nice to know we can provide such shelter for our working partners. They give us their working lives; least we can do is give them a comfortable place to ride out the storm. So I was grateful tonight as I made my rounds, that the wind and snow had been held at bay at least for the time being. All the stock were comfortable, warm, dry and content as the storm howled out its energy.
I don’t know that I want to think in terms of “living or dying by the weather”. That sounds too much like an ultimatum. I’d rather think in terms of our farm living in partnership with it. We work with the various seasons, the conditions of wind or rain or snow or sun, as best we can and with as much respect as we’re able at any given point. But when the weather is in a mood, we quietly and respectfully stay out of the way until it’s all over and calm returns. Perhaps that’s as good as it really gets.
NOTE: As an amusing irony, we lost power as I was trying to post this blog last night. Power was out several hours until those good folks at the utility restored it sometime this morning. My hat's off to those folks who are out in all conditions doing those particular jobs. I guess Ma Nature wasn't quite done making sure we knew who Boss really was.
Today I worked on various tasks associated with preparing for potentially harsh weather. It’s a familiar routine, after being on this particular farm for 10 years and going through quite a few such events. But each time through, we refine our methods. Preparedness is like that - the first time around, you miss quite a bit. But with practice, you get better.
Preparedness is an outlook on life that I chalk up to being in the same realm as “if you fail to plan, you plan to fail”. It’s simply looking ahead to what is reasonably possible, which usually involves several outcomes and a certain amount of uncertainty about which one of them will come to be. Then allowing that any of them may come to be, you take steps early on so that no matter what comes to be, you’re ready.
It can seem a daunting task but it doesn’t need to be. On the farm, storm preparedness means that we have plenty of feed, water in tanks, and outbuilding structures snugged down in case of high winds and/or heavy snow loads. Any sensitive plants in the garden are covered or brought in, such as the mother plants for my market herbs. Restock the pantry with groceries and bottled water. Fuel the trucks, and bring in plenty of wood for the woodstove. Drain the several hundred feet of outdoor hose lines and put them away. Refresh the animal bedding and bring out snow shovels, roof rakes and whatever else we might need, so that they’re easy to reach. It also means doing any outstanding household chores so they’re not demanding attention. Laundry, cooking, and even cleaning house are all nice to get out of the way. Happily, most of those tasks are already daily or weekly events so many of them are already done. Storm preparation then becomes an exercise in settling any last outstanding details: running errands in town, paying a few bills, and emptying the ashes for the woodstove. All that’s left is to watch the weather forecasts and wait for the snow.
I don’t know why, but I’ve been interested in preparedness for a long time. Maybe it was the Girl Scout camping trip where I didn’t pack until the very last moment, forgot half my creature comforts, and spent most of that weekend convinced I was going to freeze. Since then I’ve tried to improve on that first experience, whether I was out camping, or at school, or now on the farm. It’s not something you do once and you’re done. It’s a constant contest with yourself to see how much more streamlined you can make things, and how quickly you can get your operation squared away.
Many of our acquaintances don’t share our interest in preparedness, unless/until they have a touch of being caught behind when something unexpected comes up. Or, as in the case of Hurricane Katrina, some large event catches enough people unprepared that it becomes a national news event. We got more questions about preparedness in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina than in the years prior. Finally, preparedness was something more than paranoia. Yet as the headlines faded, so too did much of the interest.
It’s still a way of life for us and we believe it’s effort well spent. When our next storm rolls in, we’ll watch the weather and hope to see a major event fizzle into a minor one. But if it is major, we won’t have a lot that we need to do. Just square up the outdoor operations, then work on indoor projects and watch that snow fall without too much fretting involved. Which is the best way I know of to spend a cold winter’s day.
We spent the day today manufacturing money.
Ok, not literally. We don't have a counterfeit printing operation. Rather, we spent today creating material wealth, which is functionally the same thing as creating money. Specifically, some friends had offered us a truckload of firewood which had been sitting at their place for several years. They had harvested it but never needed it, and they didn't want it to go to waste. So for the cost of a relatively short drive and 45 minutes of effort, they helped us load enough wood to heat our house for several months. We saved money twice - we didn’t buy in wood, and we won't have to fire up the baseboard heaters. And the best part, we got to socialize while working. In fact you could hardly call it working.
That event today was just one example of how to “manufacture" money. It's a mindset where we look around for creative ways to solve issues on the farm without spending much in the process. Too many people seem to believe that if it's not purchased from a store, it doesn't exist. Or worse, they're convinced that new is better. Well, knock yourself out on that new pricetag. We’ll go the used route and enjoy most of the same benefit, without spending half as much.
But where to find those gems? There’s an entire industry of used, good condition supplies, building materials, household goods and farm equipment. Craigslist, eBay, freecycle, and building materials salvage centers are newer entries in that trade. But don’t forget garage sales, estate sales, auctions, and flea markets. You may not have all of those sources in your area, particularly if you're rural. But you or a nearby county will almost certainly have some of them, alive and kicking and begging to make your acquaintance. Let's do the math and see if driving into the nearest big-box store for an $800 fridge really beats out driving a little farther to an appliance recycling place to get nearly the same fridge for......... don't fall over in a dead faint on this one............. $80. Yep, that's how much we paid for a near-new refrigerator, delivered. Oh, and they took our old one free of charge. Or consider the used BCS walking tractor we got from craigslist at half the cost of new, by driving part-way to meet up with the Portland seller. WORTH IT.
Granted, I really have no right to tell you that you should shop here versus there. I bring all this up only because of something else I did today. I read through a long article in the Seattle Times about the state’s budget problems. Most of that article spoke in terms of "we either cut these programs or raise those taxes." Nary a word about HOW we spend our money. This is the same “gotta buy conventionally” as described above, writ large. I would propose the same solution: can we accomplish the same goals, provide the same services, for less money, through bargain hunting and innovation rather than deprivation? I know some of that creative thinking is happening here and there, as specific agencies or departments look hard for ways to get by on fewer dollars. And to those folks, I say more power to you. But examples of that kind of applied ingenuity seem few and far between.
As an example of how this can work at a community level, consider the following. I was affiliated for a time with a zoo in another state. It was a brand new facility, with only a few exhibits completed but more on the drawing board. Sure we had financial sources for operational costs and fundraisers for new exhibits. But some proposed projects were just too big. For instance, the tiger exhibit was going to cost a fortune to build. It was a high priority for various reasons, but was well out of reach financially. So zoo management looked for innovative ways to complete each segment of the project. The cliff-like facade which formed the back of the exhibit was one of the largest single costs, estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars. But a nearby vocational college volunteered to design and build it for the cost of materials, saving more than half the original cost. Then a local fencing contractor agreed to waive labor costs for the exhibit fencing when the zoo agreed to allow small, tasteful signage listing his company as a sponsor. A similar arrangement was made for landscaping and the tiger pool area. One after another, community businesses and organizations traded work and materials for recognition, education and/or experience. Bottom line, the final exhibit cost an order of magnitude less than the original estimate, because the community found creative solutions.
Those are the conversations we need to start having at every level - on the farm, in the household, in local business, as communities and as a nation. We don't need to buy our way out of this mess. We need to revisit the methods which originally built this nation: creativity, innovation, intelligent application of resources and expertise, and community-level trading. As good as having a money machine.
Today was a study in contrasts.
Early this afternoon, we were pleased to participate in a community activity that was partly symbolic, partly functional. We gathered with about 20 other people from various churches in town. Armed with buckets and pails, we walked from one of those churches to the nearby river. Our goal for that walk was to fill our containers with river water, then walk back up the hill where the water would be filtered, purified and blessed, then used in various church services this weekend. That activity might have seemed to some to be wholly impractical, since each church had perfectly functioning plumbing facilities. But the physical carrying of water was to remind us of how many other people must walk long distances for water, and use water which may not be particularly clean. It was a show of solidarity, not because we had to but because we wanted to. It was also a time to come together as a community, even though each of us had different histories, different traditions and different stories. We used that event to share our stories, and determine how to better serve our community, and those who are less fortunate than ourselves. It was a small gesture, perhaps, but it led to what I hope will be some wonderful new friendships.
Feeling very nicely connected with our community, we headed home and intended to resume our regularly schedule day of errands and projects. Then we learned of the shooting down in Arizona. Apparently a young man had decided to take out his frustrations with our society, our government and our nation by opening fire on a peaceful meeting of citizens, public servants and elected leaders. Some of those folks died. Some are still hospitalized, with conditions ranging from critical to fair. But all the witnesses to that event, and many of us who merely learned about it from afar, were stunned by this young man's actions. While many of us talk very brazenly about what we'd like to do to those people, those institutions, and those situations which frustrate us, we never intend to go through with those loud words. He took those words and acted on them. We may never know why. But as I read about that event today, I reflected on how we had spent the day and how, with just a few different details, it could have been us being fired upon.
As if to round out the imagery for the day, an ongoing discussion on a farming email list took on new meaning in light of these other events. In essence, one of the farmers on the list was debating whether to stay with a local farmers market. That market was unfortunately managed by a few individuals who had alienated the entire community. The farmer could choose to stay, and continue to try to be productive, profitable and cheerful in an environment that had turned decidedly unfriendly. She could quit the market entirely and sell her produce some other way. She could try to gain a leadership role in the management for that market, and thereby try to turn it into a constructive, vibrant, healthy place for both producers and shoppers. Or, she could start a new market, in competition with the one which so frustrated her, and perhaps build some goodwill amongst those indivduals and institutions in her community that had been so alienated before. Each path before her would require effort. None of the paths before her were guaranteed to yield what she hoped for. She was at a crossroads, and wasn't sure which way to go. None of the rest of us could tell her for certain which was "best". We could only share our experiences and our recommendations. But she would ultimately have to decide for herself which path made the most sense, and which was most likely to get her where she wanted to be - a healthy working environment where those who raise wholesome food could sell to those who wanted to buy wholesome food.
Looking at these three very divergent scenarios, I somehow wondered if there might be some common thread running through them. All three shared the element of people choosing, or trying to choose, how best to move from the situation they were in, to the situation they wanted to be in. Those of us in the community water carrying celebration were definitely there by choice, to share in an experience that others must repeat every day simply to live. The second scenario is less clear, but apparently that young man felt a sharp lack of other options, and chose to take lives as his only remaining way to affect change. Things changed all right. But I find myself wondering if he had wanted to direct that change, or if he simply wanted to make a big splash regardless of what the results were. The third scenario was someone looking for the best way to change her scenario, while protecting her own interests, the interests of the other growers she worked with, and the town she lived in.
I was also somehow reminded of an event which occurred during the creation of our nation's Constitution. Apparently during those weeks of debate during which the Constitution was crafted, Benjamin Franklin had occasionally been distracted by the woodwork designs on President Washington's chair. The design included the stylized image of a sun on the horizon. As the debate dragged on, Dr. Franklin wondered whether the person who carved the image intended for it to be a sunrise, or a sunset. Would the actions they chose in that room lead to the dawn of a new country, or the end of everything they held dear? No one knew at the time which way it would go. But upon the Constitution's ratification, apparently Benjamin Franklin concluded that that carving was in fact a sunrise, heralding a bright future for the nation which had just been created.
As the day winds down I think about the three scenarios today. One was full of community-building, solidarity with others, and constructive activity which hopefully will remind us to treasure and protect whatever we hold dear in life. One was full of despair and hatred for anyone who didn't share his personal opinions, and sought only to destroy. And one asked how best to proceed in uncertain conditions. No one has a crystal ball, and everyone is plagued at times with concerns about how to change a situation which is clearly not working. I dare say the young man's choices today certainly made a big impression. But his options in life just got a whole lot narrower, and they are no longer his to decide. The farmer who is trying to decide how to proceed with her marketing plans this year has not only her own options, but her fellow growers and her community's best interests at heart. As for our symbolic "Let's All Gather At the River" today, we took from that a renewed commitment not only to the welfare of folks in our community, but to people everywhere. How we act on that is limited only by our imagination, our energy, and our willingness to work with others. All of us will find ways, large and small, to affect change. But I'd hazard a guess that we're more likely to see some constructive results than the young man who decided that violence was his only recourse. I wonder now if, upon viewing an image of the sun on the horizon, he would have only seen a sunset. I myself prefer to see the sunrise as often as possible.
Cats are my heroes. Not everyone is a cat person and some folks, even enjoying cats, would wonder why I would make such a statement. To be sure, they have earned a place on the farm, thanks to their rodent control tendencies. We have several outdoor cats that keep our poultry and small animal barns nicely patrolled. But that's not what make them my heroes. Rather, it's the fact that they have found ways to work 4 hours a day, relax 20 hours a day, and be productive. Now THAT is accomplishing something.
Most of the folks we know, including us, work way too hard. It's not something restricted to farming although there's plenty of work-too-hard members in that profession. Every one we know, from any walk of life, in any job right now, works too hard. It's like there's an epidemic of Type A Personality. Part of that is the economic straits that we find ourselves in. While that's a whole separate kettle of fish to discuss, it does have everyone on edge. Those with jobs, are working hard to keep them. Those without jobs are working hard to find them. Thoughts of a nice relaxing vacation on a beach somewhere have evaporated for many who are trying to keep their homes warm, their kids fed and their bills paid right now. I don't doubt that any of that is necessary. I do fret that it's costing us something to exert that much sheer energy without a break.
This week, for instance, we learned that a) we lost a major form of income rather suddenly, b) we had a near-catastrophe with one of our livestock, and c) we had our normal heavier-than-it-should-be list of gotta-do's to wade through. And here we are at the end of the week, a short work-week at that, and we're exhausted. I was moving hay bales today and tweaked one of the muscles in my back which I had previously strained while wrestling with the cow earlier in the week. Not because my back muscles are weak. But because I hadn't taken a break to let them rest and recover from that exertion earlier. That's fairly standard. And it's going to put us all in early graves.
It's not just physical exertion. It's mental exertion and financial exertion and emotional exertion too. We drive ourselves too hard, particularly when times are tough like they are right now for so many of us. We don't think we can "afford" to take a few minutes here and there to rest up, heal up, find our happy place and mellow out. The real risk in all this is that we'll get so tired that we'll be unable to do those jobs we're hanging onto so hard, whatever they may be.
So I hereby propose that we all make like cats, for some small fraction of time in a day not too far in the future. Find a sunny window, and soak up the rays for a few minutes. Find a good book and a warm fire, and enjoy the company of both for awhile. Carve some personal time out of that superheated schedule. If we don't do that now, we'll end up blowing that schedule anyway when we get sick, or injured. Preventative treatment for stress related illness and injuries is just as valid as preventative medicine for other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer or carpal tunnel syndrome. Whether our profession is farming or teaching or doctoring or lawyering or whatever, find five minutes in the next 24 hours to simply Be Like A Cat. Find a comfortable spot, rest awhile, find a reason to purr. Then perhaps we can get back to work with renewed energy, a rejuvenated spirit, and quite an improved temper.
As an added bonus tonight I share with everyone a recipe that a friend gave me, to help relieve tired pulled muscles. She's a veterinary technician who knows the meaning of the phrase "physical labor". I heartily encourage you to try it out sometime:
Hot Relaxing Bath Recipe
-1/3 cup epsom salts
-1/3 cup sea salt
-1/3 cup baking soda
-whatever essential oil(s) you want.
Dump everything into a toasty warm tub of water, soak 20 minutes, then straight into bed, if only to read. Does WONDERS.
May we all find ways to not only churn through our to-do lists, but find some relaxation time along the way. It's not a question of whether we've earned it. It's a recognition that we need it. All of us. And on that note, I'm going to bed early.
I spent the day digging in cow poo.
Well, to be more specific, I spent the day cleaning out one of our cow's deep-bedded stalls. It's an exercise I need to do on a regular basis anyway. Lately I'd been pretty busy and had let that task go in favor of other bigger fires. The result was our cow-vaulting attempt two days ago. Clear signal to me that I needed to attend to that task.
While mucking out her stall wasn't really what I wanted to be doing today, it was good exercise on several fronts. After all the excitement of Tuesday and the philosophical quandaries I got into yesterday (see my previous blogs for details), today it was nice to just go down to the barn, work hard for a few hours, and actually see some results. If you've ever done hard physical work, you know exactly what I'm talking about. If you haven't, I heartily encourage you to get your hands dirty. There's something very therapeutic about hard work when it's chosen work and you get to keep the benefits of your efforts.
But what, pray tell, is so special about the smelly task of mucking out a stall? Compost, dear reader! Compost! What started out as poo will, if handled correctly, magically transform into that most delectable stuff, compost. The wonders of compost are many. We've only started to learn here to take advantage of them, and it is an education we have really rather enjoyed.
First, there's the sheer pleasure of knowing that your animals are clean and dry during the Pacific Northwest's notorious Mud Season. Our mud season lasts from roughly October through May, when the heavens unleash enough precipitation upon us that we have to find ways to channel that water in constructive ways. Livestock can turn bare outdoor yards into veritable mudpits even during the dry season. But when the heavens unleash downpour after downpour, that muddy yard becomes a cesspool. So good livestock management goes hand in hand with mud control. And mud control almost always involves making compost at some point.
Now, many folks have never studied mud up close. It is a universe unto itself. Our region's very own Alayne Blickle once defined mud as "M.U.D., which stands for Manure, Urine and Dirt". She has made it her life's mission to help livestock owners find ways to reduce the amount of mud they generate on their properties. The benefits for controlling mud are: easier chores, healthier animals, fewer flies, minimized runoff problems, and an all-round prettier, more valuable property. No one enjoys looking at mud, or living next to it, or living downstream from it. But there's ways to control mud. One very good way is to bed animals down with well-chosen bedding materials, collect the animals' manure before it's trodden into the dirt, and compost it under cover for use elsewhere on the property. Which is exactly what I was working on doing today. You can read about Alayne's work at Horses For Clean Water.
The second value in compost is the amazing nutrient transfer it provides. Natural landscapes almost always had a combination of plant and animal communities. The output from one became the input for another. Plants thrived on the manures of the animals that lived in the area, and the animals grazed, browsed or otherwise fed upon the nutrients in the plants. Many modern landscapes - whether they be urban, suburban or rural - no longer have those complete nutrient cycles intact. We apply fertilizer to our lawns because herbivores don't poo there anymore. Then we give our animals supplements because the plant materials they eat (or meat from herbivores who ate plant materials) are low in nutrients. Compost helps close the loop. Most of the nutrients in the raw manure are preserved, including that all-too-important nitrogen. And it is preserved in a way that won't so easily wash out of the soils during the first good rain.
Composting also reduces both weed seed and disease organism populations that are present in manure. Everyone's poo, including yours, dear reader, is a veritable zoo of microorganisms. Some of which are decidedly ill-tempered if they are allowed to proliferate. The high temperatures of properly-made compost kills those microorganisms, along with weed seeds that may have been present. The end result is a product chock full of goodness. It's easy to tell compost from raw manure. The manure makes you wrinkle your nose and think "ew!" The compost makes you want to dig your hands into it and plant something. Our very instincts tell us that compost is good stuff, worthy of effort in its creation, storage and use.
Additionally, compost is of course one of the starting materials for most forms of plant production on a farm. Soils that have been farmed continuously year after year will slowly but surely lose whatever nutrients they started with. Old broken down soils are often refered to as "tired", and will steadily lose their ability to grow plants. The plants that do grow will struggle with a variety of disease and pest problems, because they aren't healthy enough to defend against those threats. Science is finally starting to understand the merits of old farming traditions for applying compost to the fields, and encouraging a strong, diversified population of soil microorganisms. Soils are not meant to be sterile. They are meant to be bursting with life. Compost helps soils regain and keep that life. Healthy soils provide healthy plants, which in turn create healthy plants, animals and people.
One more benefit of compost is the amazing amount of energy it releases. The microorganisms in compost which aerobically digest the manure and turn it into compost release heat while they do their thing. That heat is what cooks out the weed seeds and disease organisms. That heat can also be tapped to provide hot water and/or warm air for a variety of purposes. The sheer mass of materials itself also provides a nice heat sink that can warm surrounding areas. I have read about folks who used compost piles to provide their domestic hot water and greenhouse heat. Those are both typically rather pricey bills to be paid. Yet the lowly compost pile can make those bills go away. The composting process is also a key ingredient in traditional hotbeds, where raw manure is put into a covered pit or trench and allowed to "cook". Put soil over the top of that compost pile, and plant into that soil, and your seedlings will have nice toasty warm little feet even while it's still January outside. In this era of electric heating cables and propane heaters, it's nice to know I can just harness the inherent energy of my existing compost piles to do all this heating for me. We've just started to experiment with some of those heating projects here. I'll write more about that aspect of things as we get more experience with it. But I'll be overjoyed to tell the propane company to come get their tank and stop billing me twice a year.
So compost is a many-splendored thing. Want better health care? Feed the soil. Want to feed the soil the very best? Feed it well-made compost. Want good compost? Treasure whatever poo you have access to. Treat it kindly, and handle it with respect. Want free heat? Harness your compost while it's cooking. Want financial independence? Treasure the materials we take for granted, and find ways to put 'em to work. Black gold, this stuff is, and it's the building blocks of darn near everything we hold truly dear in life. So in all sincerity I can say to you: "May the Poo be with You." Now, go forth and look upon poo, and compost, with new respect.
The fallout from yesterday's Dances With Cows has been rather interesting. Not in a good way, but perhaps we may yet turn things around. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
After we'd gotten Gracie the cow down from her torment on top of the rail, we were standing around trying to recover from that effort. After such an adrenalin rush, I suppose it's human nature to resort to chit-chat to break the tension. I was mumbling something about "thank you again for coming out" and the vet said something that is still ringing in my ears. "The receptionist almost told you to call someone else, but I was standing right there and told her to tell you I was on my way. But you should probably know, we don't do cows anymore."
The weight of that statement is huge. The more I think about it, the bigger it gets. Any given farm is in some ways a factory - materials and skills and energy going in, and products coming out. That analogy would anger a lot of very good farmers but stay with me here. The point is that there must be materials and skills and information coming into the farm from the outside, which can be combined with the resources already on the farm, to create whatever the farm is set up to create. Most conversations about farm management and farm logistics and even farm sustainability focus primarily on either economic or environmental materials management. But that leaves off a vital segment - outside expertise. No one person can be an expert at everything. And sometimes that expertise can make the difference between a thriving farm operation, versus a shuttered farmhouse, empty barn and vacant paddocks.
So learning yesterday that my nearby vet hospital no longer covers cows was a blow. I am very comfortable doing a lot of different medical things with my animals - giving SubQ or IM injections, treating minor injuries, treating mastitis and pneumonia and cocci and so on. But there are times and circumstances where my animals' needs go beyond my skills. At which point I either call in the experts or lose the animal. While we do sometimes choose to put an animal down as humanely as possible, it is still nice to have the choice for how to proceed. Losing that choice, and that expertise, reduces my ability to respond well to uncommon, but definitely possible, events. When you're reduced to one option, that paints you into a corner real fast. But why was this happening?
I knew our local vet hospital had slowly but surely been retreating from various livestock - first they stopped seeing pigs, then small ruminants like goats and sheep. And now apparently they no longer do cows. After talking to a variety of people about this, including our very good dog/cat vet, the verdict is pretty uniform - vets can make more money, with less risk to personal safety, by going either with dogs and cats, or horses. I can certainly understand the economics. Large animal treatment is a hassle. If the animal is transported to the vet, the vet hospital must have adequate reception, exam, treatment and surgery areas for these larger creatures. Merely transporting them from one place to another can be a pain because you either need a van, a truck or a trailer. So instead of bringing the animal to the vet, sometimes the vet comes to the animal. That saves the producer some hassle, but then the vet needs a truck equipped with all the supplies, equipment and drugs which may be needed. That vet also easily spends as much time on the road any given day as he or she does seeing the client's animals. That gets expensive really, really fast. Add to that the risks involved in working with animals that usually weigh a lot more than you do, and can do serious damage if they don't like what you're doing. The risk to life and limb is real. We the owners are possibly less at risk because our animals know us and hopefully trust us. But have some vet go into a pen and start poking and prodding, that puts the vet in range of being kicked, bitten, gored or trampled. Even a minor bite to the hand can end a vet's career. So it's really no mystery that vet hospitals have been taking a long hard look at whether it pays to see livestock. I guess more and more of them have concluded the costs and the risks outweigh the benefits.
So the livestock owner is left with some hard choices. We keep our animals knowing that when they get sick or injured, we're on our own. Or we pick up the phone and start sending the emails asking for assistance from more experienced livestock owners, who are not vets but hopefully they have at least seen what we're seeing in this particular illness or injury, and know what to do next. That latter has been happening more and more frequently over the passage of time. I am on roughly two dozen email lists for various livestock species, and most of the emails back and forth involve some kind of owner-administered health care after injury or illness. It might be as simple as an abrasion or a fever. But I've seen emails asking for help with animals suffering from gangrene, tetanus, poisoning, and other life-threatening conditions. Their emails usually start of with "we don't have any vets here anymore......"
A third option is the one that we're going to pursue. Namely, to increase access to information, to techniques, and methods before the owner needs them, so that owners can stock up on the medications, the supplies, and the diagnostic tools they'll need for those future events. Prevention is also a huge part of this equation - safe fences reduce injury, sound nutrition reduces susceptibility to illness, and knowledgeable observation and diagnostics can nip a problem in the bud before it gets more serious. I have only just started to talk about how other livestock owners and I might accomplish this. So far we've talked about things like newsletters, workshops, websites chock full of information, and good old fashioned farmers-helping-farmers. Whatever it takes to gain the information, the equipment and the supplies we need. Whatever it takes to put tools in our livestock management toolbox.
It's not a perfect answer. Some would object because we are bumping up hard against local, state and federal law against practicing medicine without a license. Well, to that latter concern I would invite a state official to take my cellphone calls when the phone rings in the middle of the night because someone's lambs are down with enterotoxemia, or someone's cow is calving and the calf is stuck. That official is welcome to take the call and walk that owner through how to proceed. But less flippantly, and more importantly, producers need these tools to do this job we call farming. Either we get that support from outside expertise, or we bootstrap ourselves up into being competent to provide care for our own animals. I don't like that last answer, but that may be the best answer we can come up with.
As I started to explore this topic, I asked other livestock owners in other areas of the country what solutions they had come up with. I got a lot of replies, but precious few solutions. Most of them merely said they were stuck with the same issue, and did not have a satisfactory answer. A few said they had teamed up with retiring vets to try to learn as much as possible from the Old Guard before that knowledge was lost. It's disconcerting that even as our nation is poised on the verge of an agricultural renaissance, we're being hamstrung by a lack of information. I don't know yet what the solution is, but I can tell you I'll be working on a solution in conjunction with a lot of other very concerned livestock owners. We'll keep you posted.
Most days on the farm pass, one like another, until they all blur into what is hopefully a pleasant patchwork of memories. Collecting eggs, counting piglets, transplanting tomatoes, harvesting corn, are all tasks that need doing but they don't stand out as being particularly memorable. The days progress and the seasons progress and you wonder where it all goes.
Then there are days when something so unusual or scary or potentially life-changing occurred, that they stay crystal clear in our minds for the rest of time. Today was one of those.
On a normal winter day I get up well before dawn, open the gate as the husband drives off to work, do a cursory check of the livestock, then go start the woodstove and otherwise get the morning going inside. Then I do chores a few hours later after the sun has come up. If I have animals that are recovering from an illness, due to give birth, or otherwise under observation, I will use this time to check on them. But 99% of the time, the farm is still quiet. Given that it's January, most of our outdoor activities are put away for the winter, so morning chores are relatively simple. No need to get started super early. And today started out about the same. The weather was starting to turn warmer so the temperature was much milder than it had been. No rain, wind or snow overnight so nothing to check in terms of fence damage or roof damage. I glanced into each of the livestock shelter areas, and was pleased to see that everything was quiet. At which point I went back inside to heat up the house, get some breakfast going and let the sun come up.
When I came back outside two hours later, something was very different. One of the cows was moaning. I usually feed them first so I was already headed down to that barn. At first it sounded like a normal "feed me!" bawl. But well before I got there I could not only hear something wrong, I could see it. One of our cows, for reasons that still escape me, decided in the pre-dawn light that she was going to try to jump over a stall divider. At which point she promptly got stuck. Our stalls in that barn are formed by tall, rugged metal corral panels: heavy-gauge tubular steel rails welded together into panels 6' tall and 10' long. They are, as far as I know, darn near bombproof. And at that point, I also realized they were apparently cow-proof, because our cow Gracie was high-centered over the top of one of them. The bedding pack had already built up about 24" at the base of the panel, so instead of 6' high it was functionally only 4' high, which is roughly level with her topline. Normally a cow won't try to jump something so tall. Yet, she decided she could jump it. How she got her front feet over that top rail I'll never know. But when I found her she could either touch ground with her front feet, or with her back, but not both. She was well and truly stuck.
When you see something like that, something so outside your normal expected reality, it takes a moment for the situation to really sink in. It suddenly dawned on me as I stood there that she would need help to get down. How do you lift a 1500 pound cow off the top of a corral panel and back to the safety of level ground? Then I realized something else. Despite what had to be a very uncomfortable position, where her own weight was compressing her heart and lungs such that I could hear her breathing several feet away, she wasn't panicking. Yet. She was looking at me asking for help, but she wasn't thrashing around. So in the naivete that we humans sometimes feel when faced with insurmountable odds, I tried to pick up my cow. Just the front end, mind you. I wasn't that far gone. I thought if perhaps I could just shift her weight back a little, she could finally reach the ground with those back feet. But physics shows no favoritism, not even when we have the very best intentions, and 130lbs versus 1500lbs was going exactly nowhere. Then I thought if perhaps I could put some hay bales under her, she could stand on those either in front or behind. I told her to please not worry, I would be right back, but I was going to get some hay bales to help her. Her pleading eyes told me to hurry.
Four bales later, and we had made no progress. I realized I needed some help. First I called my husband who was 45 minutes away. Only got his voicemail. Infuriating that some mundane task would have him away from his phone at that precise moment. Next I called the vet clinic that was only 5 miles down the road. They do large animals and surely they had some big beefy interns that could come up and help me out. Well, it turns out they had a slender young lady vet who could come up and help me out, and she'd be there as soon as she could. I told Gracie that help was on the way. With the hay bales I had been able to help her lift herself a little off the top rail so she was breathing easier, but every five minutes or so she'd start struggling again to get over the rail. I prayed that she wouldn't get into serious trouble before I had some help.
The vet finally arrived after what seemed forever, and we concluded that yes the hay bales really were the only way to go, since we couldn't realistically lift her any other way. We also concluded that because of her positioning and the fixed nature of the panel, the only way off the top of the panel was to continue forward into the next stall. Which already had an occupant - our other cow. So far I'd kept that other cow distracted and busy with her morning hay. But she was getting more and more curious about all the fuss behind her. Each cow stall is only 10'x15', which didn't leave a lot of room for one full-sized dairy cow, the two of us, and the front half of another dairy cow. At some point, the second cow's curiosity and friendliness was going to become a problem.
While Gracie rested precariously balanced on her perch and some hay bales, we quickly brought in another corral panel to divide the stall in half, such that we had room to work and our second cow Hope would be relegated to watch from the sidelines. She didn't much care for that but she quieted down soon enough and went back to her hay. But by this time, roughly 2 hours had come and gone since I'd found Gracie. It was probably 3 hours since she'd gotten stuck. She was starting to get tired, and I think scared, and her breathing was becoming somewhat ragged. We needed to do something and we needed to do it soon. The vet nearly emptied our hay shed to create more cushion and elevation under Gracie's feet, while I called my husband again. Happily he answered this time. My message was simple: "Come Home Now. We Need You." He was on his way.
The next 45 minutes passed as the previous 2 hours had already passed, with Gracie struggling periodically to free herself while we tried to position bales under her front and hind feet so she could get better purchase. The hope was that as we steadily built up the hay around the corral panel, at some point she'd be able to stand and somehow move off the rail. But our working conditions were tight, she faced an increasingly steep descent, which cows don't like, and worst of all, she was tiring quickly. We had built up the hay under her front legs, to help lift her off the rail so she could breathe easier. But that shifted a lot of her considerable weight back to her hind legs which were never designed to carry that load. We could see the muscles in her back legs starting to tremble, and she was shifting from one leg to the other as she got tired. She was also making efforts to change position less frequently. We feared she was starting to give up. Finally, I heard my husband's truck pull up. More help had arrived.
He could see the situation clearly enough as he walked up; it didn't take much discussion for him to head back to the house and change into farm clothes, then hustle back out to us. By this time we had actually made a bit more progress, simply by rocking Gracie forward such that she was now kneeling on bales on front and most of her body had passed over the smooth top rail. The fact that she had not yet suffered any broken skin (or broken bones for that matter) was a minor miracle. But the real challenge was clearly before us. The rail was now directly under her loin, that narrowest spot right before the hip. Somehow we had to lift both hind legs up and over that top rail without either of them getting caught in the rails beneath. If we could get those feet up and over, we were home free. If one or both of them got hung up as the mass of her weight began to shift forward and down, we would have nightmarish injuries very quickly. She was still cooperating with us and her breathing was a lot easier now that the pressure was off her heart girth. But would she cooperate with us enough to lift up her entire hind quarters, re-position both back feet, and deliberately slide her to the ground? The moment of truth was upon us.
As we were getting ready to make that last shift, she decided for us that she was going to change the plan. Looking back, I think that decision probably saved the whole situation. Some would question whether she actually decided, or it was just dumb luck, or random chance. But at that moment when we were preparing to make our big coordinated effort, she simultaneously rolled to the left, lifted her right hind leg enough that her knee cleared the rail, then rolled back to the right so that she was now laying on that haunch. Not by much, but it was enough. With her now laying partially on her side, and her right rear leg almost over the rail, she also presented us with an unimaginable gift - her left rear leg was free and clear. In that moment she had done everything she could do to free herself, and she was holding position as best she could; it was up to us to do the rest.
Anyone who has ever been in a truly frightening situation is aware of something called time dilation. It's where you are so hyper-aware of what's going on, that every second seems to take several minutes to unfold. You see things moving, you see what needs to happen, you recognize risks and you make choices about how to proceed. In the moment that she rolled back over onto her right hip, we had just a few seconds to work with, and we couldn't stand around and talk about what to do next. Somehow, we all knew what needed to happen without speaking, and we all just did our part. The vet shoved hard against Gracie's back to ensure she didn't simply slide into the back wall. My husband shoved Gracie's rump straight forward with all the energy his 6'2" muscular frame could manage. And I, despite every ounce of good sense I'd ever learned working around large animals, grabbed both her back feet, then tugged and restrained and guided them simultaneously and safely over the top rail. As the majority of her body shifted beyond the rail and down towards the ramp of hay bales, gravity took over and she slid down to the stall floor, just as pretty as you please. If we had had a year to train for that event, we couldn't have pulled it off any smoother than it went. And suddenly, it was over. She was safely on the floor of the stall, breathing hard, while the rest of us stood there suddenly realizing we were panting as well.
The next 15 minutes were spent recovering, for all of us. Gracie just rested on the floor, while I monitored her breathing to ensure she was able to get enough air despite the fact that her rumen now rested directly on her lungs. She closed her eyes for awhile and seemed to just relish being on terra firma again. The vet prepared some drugs to help her body deal with the aftermath of being caught for several hours. My husband started to clear away the hay bales and ensure we had a safe work area in case she started to struggle to her feet in the enclosed area and we had to move out of her way quickly. But she was in no hurry to move. She laid resting on the floor of the stall for 15 minutes or so, then tucked up all four legs so she could roll back over and rest in a more normal position, with hooves underneath her. When the big needles came out and the injections started, she decided nope, she's had enough and got up as if it had been a perfectly normal morning. A few moments later, she started looking around for some breakfast. Total elapsed time, about four hours.
A friend of mine once admitted to me that he worried about our efforts to get our farm going. "You care too much," he explained, "you can't get so attached to those animals if you're going to try to run that place like a business." I strongly disagreed with him then, and I still do. Anyone who has ever been in business for themselves understands that they have to love what they do. Otherwise the long hours, the startup bills, the learning curve, the competition just isn't worth it. That applies to farming as well. You'd better love what you do most of the time, because it's hard work even when you're making good money. But I'd go further and say that any sort of job that deals with living things - whether it be medicine, botany, child care, farming, etc - the caretaker must somehow love the creatures that come with the job. Or that person is in the wrong job. When we bring living things into our lives because we want to work with them in some capacity, I believe that automatically obligates us to also adopt certain responsibilities for their comfort, their welfare, their physical and mental health. And yes, their happiness. If we don't love to work with those creatures, we do them and ourselves a disservice. They don't have the option to quit the job, so it's up to us to choose our jobs wisely. At which point love and respect for the animals is not merely a desirable characteristic. It's a requirement.
But there's another dimension of that choice. When we devote ourselves to learning how best to care for them, handle them, feed them and train them, we are often rewarded with such trust and respect in return that we are given a chance to really work as partners. All through Gracie's ordeal today, she never once lost her temper, or got frantic, or lashed out at any of us trying to help her. Yet being hung up on that rail had to be extremely uncomfortable, borderline excruciating. I can't count how many times I was in a position that if she had lashed out, I would have been injured or killed by those hooves. But she didn't. There is no doubt in my mind that she knew we were trying to help. Furthermore, once we had come up with a game plan, she seemed to understand what we were trying to do and then suddenly we were all working together on the same plan. We did absolutely nothing to cue her to roll over on her side. Even if I'd known in advance she was going to get hung up, I never would have thought to train her to do that. But she could feel in her own body that she had to position herself that way, or our plan would never work. And so she chose the right time, when we were in the right place, and she rolled. She did her part and we did ours, and we got her down. Simply explaining that chain of events as random chance would be to ignore all the previous context of what had happened. She knew the deal. It was only due to her cooperation that we were able to get her down without so much as a grazed knuckle.
Of course my schedule was blown for the day, so after we were sure she was OK I hustled off to the rest of the farm to catch up on all the other morning chores. Then I realized that the adrenaline had worn off and I was feeling shaky. I got inside to eat something, then laid down and took a bit of a nap. When I got up I went out to check on her. She'd had a full breakfast by then, and a nice long drink, and time to ruminate on the morning's events. Normally she's a reasonably friendly cow, not prone to getting in your face but enjoying a scratch once in awhile. But this afternoon when I checked on her, she did something she'd never done before. She extended her neck way out over the stall door and into the aisle, and sort of wrapped her head and neck around me. She stood there like that for a few moments, while I talked quietly to her about how proud I was of her and how brave she'd been, and how cooperative. I wasn't sure if she wanted to give, or receive, reassurance. Maybe both. I know I felt better after getting that "hug" from her. I hope she felt better too.
Cows are called "the nursemaids of humanity" because so many cultures have relied on them to provide such nutritious foods throughout history. I had heard that phrase repeatedly over the years but I had never really understood it until today. Whatever friskiness she may have felt this morning to inspire her to get into trouble, had very quickly yielded to some kind of combined instinct and intuition and understanding that Cow and Human need to work together to get things done. If either of us had forced the issue, one of us would not have walked out of that stall in one piece. It really was that simple. But by working together, we both came out in good shape. There's another farming phrase which goes "those who stir the soil are eventually stirred by the soil." I found myself wondering tonight, upon reflecting on the day's events, if perhaps there is a bovine corollary to that phrase. If so, perhaps it would go "those who care for the cow, are eventually cared for by the cow." I guess time will tell if that's accurate. But tonight, I sure love that goofy red cow.
Any given person walking the earth is probably very good at a few things, reasonably good at many things, marginally competent at more things, and absolutely miserable at the rest. And it's taken me 45 years to be able to admit that's true for me as well. Take farming for example. I'm really really really good with animals. Been working with 'em my whole life. Watched Dr. Doolittle and Flipper as a child and the next thing my family knew I was bringing home everything I could catch and stuff into a mason jar. Slowly but surely worked through various amphibian, reptile, small mammal and then medium mammal species as pets, until I was working with horses as a teenager. That progression never stopped, and right now our farm census typically stands at roughly 100 animals at any given time.
I'm not as practiced with plants. Sure I've had plants most of the same time I've had animals, but they didn't talk to me the same way the critters did, or perhaps I didn't talk to them as much. Mom's house has always been full of plants and I've had my share, but somehow they just didn't resonate as much with me as animals did.
And then somewhere along the line this notion got into my head that I wanted to farm. Some folks would refer to that as a calling. Some would shake their heads and call it mental illness. Others would look me stern in the eye and tell me that I can't be fooling around with such games; leave that to the professionals and go get a real job. Well, I had a real job for a long time. In fact I worked in several different professional realms over the years, and learned a lot in each one. But always, this notion to get some land, raise up some animals, raise up some plants, and somehow make a living out of that, just wouldn't leave me alone. So here we are.
The problem with such notions is that we often only see the parts of that dream that we want to see. Oh, yes, it's very easy to visualize the lambs frolicking in the green pastures, the carrots all in a row with their feathery tops and crunchy roots digging into deep, well tilled earth. But the reality is sometimes quite different. Know what I spent my farming time doing today? Reading up on how to use Excel spreadsheets so that I can better plan out how many tomatoes, how many carrots, how many piglets, how much wool, and how many heads of lettuce I need to produce this year in order to meet all my gotta-pay bills, not to mention my wanna-do expenditures. That tractor we've been shopping for, off and on for two years now? Can't pay for it without selling a whole lot of salad mix. That new greenhouse so I can get an earlier start on the growing season? I can't even count how many rabbits I'd need to sell to pay for that. So throughout the year, but particularly in wintertime, I become one with my Excel spreadsheets. Together, my computer and I try our level best to churn through all the data to sort out what to plant, what to breed, what to make, how much to charge, how much I spent to create it and package it and market it and insure it, and how many of them will likely sell, to meet those goals.
But that's only the half of it. Less than half, actually. While farming is a very visible profession, even aesthetic at times, the bulk of the work is invisible to the naked eye. Most of the heavy lifting isn't done with the tractor, or with the shoulders, or even with the legs. It's done with the mind. How many tomato varieties should I try this year? That cherry tomato didn't like the cool spring last year. The Brandywines I was able to harvest tasted heavenly but they didn't fare well against whatever-the-heck-it-was disease that came along in mid-August. The birds are laying well but they're just about ready to molt. Should I let them go through molt and lay again, or buy in replacements? Seven of my 12 lettuce varieties did really well in spring, but four of the seven bolted with that oddball heat wave we had. Do I try those again and hope the weather doesn't go so hot so fast? That sow needs to be bred, but which boar should we use this time? I'd like to have the cow in milk for those piglets we'll have by then, but geez I don't have the stall for another calf. Would it be worth the money to expand the barn for the calf, so that we can feed the piglets the extra milk? And should I spread all the compost in the garden this year, or put some of it on the fields?
Even that's not the end of it. We need to change the insurance coverage on our house and vehicles, because as a farm we are rated differently than a mere residence. But that only covers damage to the premises in case of fire, weather, accident, etc. What about liability insurance? How much is enough? Do I need different coverage for different products? And then there's the ever-changing regulatory landscape. We have chosen many of our farm income streams based on what's regulated, what's not, and how hard it is to meet any given set of regulations. But that combination changes almost literally every day. One year we can raise as many Thanksgiving turkeys as we want, butcher them here, sell them direct to customers, and everyone's happy. The next year, it's outlawed. Period. The year after that, we can raise them again but now we need to be inspected and certified first. Oh, and the state didn't do a very good job telling anyone the rules had changed (again) until after we'd already placed our order for turkey poults. "Sorry to hear that, but the law is the law. So, watcha gonna do with all them birds now? Guess the dogs will eat good, har har har." Yep, that'll make anyone's day, hearing that your $4,000 income from Thanksgiving turkeys just went down as dog food.
So how do we sort through all this flak? How can one person possibly stay current with all the regs, all the research, all the new varieties and new products and new diseases and new markets?
Short answer? No one person can.
So we have a choice. Surround ourselves with folks who do that particular task really really well, so that we can focus our attention on what we do really really well. Or we relegate ourselves to being limited by what we don't do very well. Because that can't-do-it-well skill, whatever it is, becomes the bottleneck that strangles the entire operation.
There's a few ways to surround ourselves with experts. First off, no one is an expert at everything. Most folks are experts at something, but like us they could use help in other areas. So, what's it called when an expert in A hitches up with an expert in B such that they can finally pull together? That's called a team. A collaboration. A best-of-both-worlds-but-you-darn-well-better-work-well-together arrangement. It can be a true synergy of married talents and skills and assets. It can also be a slow motion trainwreck if you hook up with the wrong individual. Like any other personal relationship, all those dynamics need to work well enough that the net result is a good one. To quote an old saying, "before hitching up as a team, look well to the other horse." Yet if that horse has strengths you don't have, and your personalities mesh well, you can move mountains. As I described in a previous blog entry, we've already decided to collaborate with one nearby farmer such that our animals graze his land. I already have worked with this individual long enough, and we know each other's style well enough, that we're pretty sure the partnership will work out nicely.
Another way to fill in our own personal blanks is with a mentoring relationship. This one was hardest for me to cultivate because it required that I admit, to myself and to the world, that I don't actually know everything about everything. There's someone out there (possibly more than one) who know more than I do about some particular topic. Perish the thought! But it's true, darnit. And the sooner I 'fessed up to that reality, the easier life suddenly got.
Once I realized that this one particular individual was extremely useful as a mentor in this one particular area, it got easier to say "wow, I could use some help over here too!" And suddenly I had a livestock mentor, a horticultural mentor, an accounting and tax mentor, a banking mentor, a tractor/implements/equipment mentor, and a legal mentor. Sheesh, with access to all that expertise you'd think the only thing left to do would be to lay on the couch, bark orders to my staff and read a book. Oh, if only. Nope, I'm still the one doing most of the heavy lifting. But now, whenever I get stumped on what to do next, or I'm faced with Options #1, #2 and #3, I can call or email my mentor for that topic and say "this is what I'm working on. These are my goals, these are my resources, here's the challenge, what do you suggest?" And four times out of five, they'll come up with something I never thought of. And that something will work better than anything I could have come up with on my own. Even better, most of those mentors have turned into good friends. So I'm not calling a stranger to ask how to change the bearings on some piece of equipment made 42 years before I was born. Instead, I'm calling a friend to help me spend 30 minutes doing a task that otherwise would have taken 3 weeks, two bottles of aspirin and a whole lot of expletives. Toss in the rest of a friendly conversation and hearing about how their farms are going, how their family is going, how their tomatoes or goat kids or tractor pull competitions are going, and before you know it you forget this is actually work.
But the magic part of this is that they get as much out of that exchange as I do. I still haven't figured out how or why. Maybe one of those great mysteries of Life. Or perhaps it's as simple as being able to share knowledge and skills that were hard-won in the School of Hard Knocks. Whatever the case, we both benefit. And life is easier. Hard to beat that combination.
Oddly enough, I'm not the real beneficiary. Neither is my mentor, per se. Rather, the farm is the real winner in this comraderie. Not just the animals, not just the plants or the fields or the books or the policies or the marketing plan. But the farm as a living breathing entity gets stronger, more dynamic. The farm is more strongly tied not only to myself and my family, but to the whole community that helped bring it along. It has formed strong ties not only to the present, but to the past and the future as expertise and knowledge and wisdom are handed off from one caretaker to the next. At which point, those of us lucky enough to be involved in this dance suddenly realize the dance isn't about us. It's about caring for these places that feed and house and support the communities, which in turn feed and house and support the farms that surround them. We learn our true place in the universe, as privileged caretakers of living history. The time will come when I'll need to hand it off to someone else, thus helping the farm reach its zenith of being timeless. Now there's something worth some planning, collaborating, and mentoring. Oh, and don't forget the heavy lifting.
Today was hay day. One of our centerpiece errands for the week is making hay runs to a nearby farm that grows and sells the hay we feed to almost all the animals here. Even the chickens get in on the action, because we also use that hay to line nest boxes. And we've hatched out a brood or two of home-grown birds in the hay shed here. The only critters who haven't experienced this particular hay are the hogs because they don't generally eat hay. But they too will experience that nearby farm come springtime, when they're turned out on the hay fields to graze.
I bring up our hay runs in the context of sustainability, because right now our hay consumption is not a sustainable part of our farm. Sustainability isn't just about protecting natural resources. It's also about protecting financial resources, and ensuring that farms remain not only ecologically viable but also financially solvent. To be blunt, our feed cost should be less than our animal-products income, and right now it ain't. Conversely, the farm we buy the hay from should be creating more soil fertility than they take off the land and sell, which they don't. We have a surplus of fertility here, while they have a surplus of feed. We each have to pay money to make up the difference. Each farm loses another bit of sustainability, one bale at a time.
That farmer and I have talked about that juxtaposition of need in the past, and this spring we're going to close that gap by having our animals go graze land on their farm. We'll be using a parcel of theirs that they try to harvest every year, but many years can't harvest on time due to logistical issues. So that grass gets too long and seedy, another crop goes to fallow, and they lose out on that income. Meanwhile, I'm buying hay when my animals should be grazing for their supper. But put our animals on that same ground, with carefully managed rotational grazing, and suddenly the gaps on both farms are closed - our animals graze for their supper, that farm harvests a crop without additional manpower, expense or weather-imposed limitations, we both save money, they save their soils, and everyone is happy. Particularly the critters. A win/win/win scenario.
Yet the question of sustainability doesn't end with that tidy little story. While getting our weekly supply of hay today, I was mulling the larger question of how to cut costs and boost production during 2011, given the loss of income that I discussed yesterday. While buying in all that hay isn't sustainable for us, and therefore needs to change, it is perhaps indicative of a larger issue. I had gotten complacent, because I had money rolling in on a regular basis from outside sources. I have known for some time that we needed to either grow more of our own feed, or have our animals return a larger income to justify the expense. Yet I haven't acted on that knowledge because it was easier to simply pay for the hay. I think a lot of our society today is in that predicament - we have forgotten how to provide for ourselves with the materials at hand, and instead have focused on how to make more money so that we can spend more money. Then somewhere along the line our economy began to focus on manufacturing money from money, and the financial services sector was born. Or was at least whelped into the twisted form we see today, where topics like cash derivatives are somehow now fodder for casual conversation.
But how do we as a farm (or a society) reach this nirvana of sustainability? It's not as simple as just aiming our ship in that general direction and pushing away from the dock. There's a sailing metaphor that I think about a lot which goes something like this:
-- An optimist forever expects a tailwind.
-- A pessimist forever expects a headwind.
-- A realist adjust his sails and keeps going.
In that context, our farm's quest for sustainability was aimed in the right general direction, but we were losing our tailwind as our animal population eclipsed our ability to feed them. The optimist in me kept saying that if I converted more of our own farm to intensive production, I'd be able to feed them all here. The pessimistic side I sometimes slip into would warn that our farm can never produce enough to feed all these creatures and we're going to have to sell them off. Or go broke buying in hay. It was while debating those two extreme stances awhile back that the realistic voice spoke up and encouraged me to seek out some other option. Something that fit our needs AND fit someone else's needs, in some kind of win/win scenario. In other words, adjusting the sails to accommodate whatever wind we have, while still moving forward. And in that moment the sustainability of both farms improved. Happily, when we got word yesterday that a major source of income had just evaporated, ie we lost wind from that direction altogether, we were already setting our sails in anticipation of wind from a new direction. Our forward progress would not be impeded.
Yet allowing for that third option required another mental shift. To borrow a term from a different form of transportation, there's a concept that pilots call "angle of attack", or "attitude", which describes the angle at which the airplane is flying into the wind. Think of it as "nose up", "level" or "nose down". More specifically, an airplane's wing (rather than the nose) needs to meet the incoming airflow at a certain angle to generate lift. If that angle is too steep (nose too high), lift is no longer created and the airplane stalls out and falls like a rock. It's not pretty. Yet if the angle is too shallow (nose too low), the plane goes into a dive and meets the ground prematurely. Also not pretty. There's a sweet spot in the middle of those two, a "Goldilocks" angle which is just right, where the airplane's attitude is neither too steep, nor too shallow, but is just right to create lift and fly in a nice, level way. As I mulled my hay situation today, I wondered if perhaps our "angle of attack" on the farm had been too steep in recent years. We'd flown too high, too fast, and we were in danger of stalling out because we were no longer creating enough lift. Yet selling the animals to cut our hay costs would have been an over-correction, ie putting the nose down and flying into the ground. We needed to find some way to level out our flight. Level out our attitude. Seek a solution that would preserve what we had, and help us maintain it. That's when we were finally open to considering that third possibility: collaborating with the other farm to lease their hay grounds.
Another thing I like about that metaphor is that a pilot's use of the word "attitude" so nicely matches the role of attitude in someone's everyday life. If their attitude is too optimistic, they try to accomplish too much and stall out. Loss of lift. If their attitude is too negative, they either fly into the ground or never take off towards whatever they're trying to do. Yet with the right attitude, they lift off, fly level, and arrive safely. It's a nice concept as we mull various decisions and choices, regardless of the task at hand.
I was also thinking of another phrase today while loading up all those hay bales. "Necessity is the mother of invention." Well, that is undoubtedly true. But I suspect that a shortage of cash could very easily be called Daddy. Most of the innovations I've ever seen, on farms or elsewhere, came because of two conditions - a need to solve some problem, and no way to buy the conventional solution. Recognizing that pairing puts a whole new spin on how we look at problems, and solutions, and options. Instead of just going down to the feed store, or the grocery store, or the mall for that matter, perhaps we need to look around for other ways to do things. We've tried to do that on the farm in a lot of different ways: building bookshelves instead of buying them, cutting our own firewood instead of turning up the thermostat, getting used vehicles on freecycle instead of buying them new (really!). It has provided us with some nice solutions along the way, including an '83 Ford Ranger that I absolutely love. Ironically it has also saved us so much money that we've been able to go out and spend that money when and where we really needed it. Financial sustainability. We re-learn how to create, how to improvise, how to boot-strap ourselves out of where we are and into where we want to be. Fold over that dollar bill and put it back in our pockets, thus doubling our money. I wonder where our economy would be today if we'd never lost that ability. I wonder where our nation could go next if we reclaimed that skill. Probably a much better place than where we are right now.
Long day today. We got word early on that my major off-farm job, a consulting contract for software design, would not be renewed this year. That was quite a surprise since only a month ago we'd been told it would definitely be renewed, and we'd made plans accordingly. This particular contract was pretty valuable, not merely because of the income it provided but also because it allowed me to do the bulk of my billable work from home. As the Internet has matured into a stable communications and information exchange platform, the ability to exchange vast amounts of data in real time has meant a lot of folks are now able to work from wherever they happen to be - the deck of a ship, the outback of deserts or mountaintops, or in our case, a farm that needs throughout-the-day tending. There are other such consulting positions out there in the world, but my position with this particular firm was largely possible due to my long history with their product line. Without such tenure elsewhere, another position like this one is unlikely. So, I wave goodbye tonight to a company and a product line that I've been involved with, one way or another, for over 12 years. It's been a great experience and it made possible much of what I've done here on the farm. But it's time to move on.
So today we've been considering options, even as we already had our hands full with more immediate concerns. The temps have warmed up enough that we turned the household water back on, and not surprisingly we found a few compression fittings (the safety valves for our often-frozen system) had worked loose. That's just fine with us - those breaks keep other areas from freezing. But we also lost the tub/shower mixer valve because it sits in an un-insulated wall and is very difficult to insulate. So we get to replace that which means an entire day spent on that task, thanks to where it's located. I was annoyed, but not surprised, to find that. And of course all the animals needed water, which was delivered in part via hose and in part via me carrying water buckets to the cow/horse barn since those hose lines had frozen. Also irritating, and expected.
Which brings us to the first topic in my headline tonight, namely "priorities". The loss of my contract is a priority because I have to replace that income, probably from growing more and selling more from the farm. Which has been an ongoing goal anyway. But the frozen water lines and water breaks was a different sort of priority. All living things need water, typically sooner rather than later, and I could either fret about how to replace that income, or stew about frozen water lines, or I could just go carry buckets wherever they needed to go. So I did the latter. And by the way, an individual mature cow, even when not milking, needs roughly 15 gallons of water per day. Since our buckets are 5gallon buckets, that was three trips per cow. Thankfully we only have two cows, so I was able to carry a bucket for each cow, each trip. And folks wonder why I'm skinny. Come work the farm with me sometime and it won't stay a mystery for long. But I digress....
Prioritization on the farm is crucial. There are simply too many moving parts at any given time to try to focus on all of them. So I need to replace my lost income. I knew I could do that, in general terms, by either growing/producing more, cutting costs, and/or introducing new crops/products for sale. Those are all relatively big, slow-motion tasks that I'll need to think about. In the meantime, the animals' need for water was immediate. And fixing the water leaks was "sooner rather than later". So my day's work was basically dictated by a clear understanding of my priorities - water the creatures, then fix the leaks I can fix immediately, make plans to go into town for a new mixer valve, and all the while let my subconscious and creativity wheel unimpeded on new ideas for how to either cut costs or increase income. Now that we're at the end of the day, I have to say I accomplished something on every front. The animals are watered, the majority of leaks are fixed, and I even had time to write down some income and cost-savings ideas.
In the meantime, my hands got pretty torn up today, with all the plumbing work, the outdoor work with cold, wet hands, and then the normal wintertime dry conditions inside. A friend of mine, Judy Ehrlich, makes a nice product called Minus 40 Skin Balm, which is wonderful for those times when your hands are so chapped that the skin starts to split open like a few dozen little paper cuts. I've been using her Minus 40 Balm for about a week now, ever since she gave me some for Christmas, and I have to say it's really a very pleasant alternative to fingers full of bandaids. Thanks, Judy, for such great balm.
So tonight I ponder the meaning of balance on a farm, where almost by definition the work is never done, there is always some new project screaming for attention, and those things you took for granted yesterday are suddenly no longer applicable. The odd thing is, that's really no different from what other folks are experiencing right now in very different walks of life. The rules for how we make our way in the world have slowly, steadily, sometimes rudely been changing lately. Well, maybe those changes started slowly but they're sort of snowballing lately. And I reflect back on the priorities I faced today - the need for water, the need for financial answers, and the need for some creature comforts along the way. I sense a metaphor in there somewhere for the meaning of Life itself. We will always have issues that come to our attention, screaming and shouting, which nevertheless must be held at arm's length and considered awhile before we act. We'll always have quiet issues, new or old, which even though they don't make much noise demand our immediate attention. And throughout that dance, we have our own needs, and our own preferences, that should also be answered in some respectful, constructive, complementary way, lest our abilities to answer those other issues is compromised. There really are no solid "right" answers in life, because the target keeps moving. I'm reminded of a book titled "I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can". I feel that way sometimes. I think a lot of folks feel that way sometimes. Even as we get out of breath, and perhaps need to step off the dance floor occasionally, I hope we all find a way to love the dance. Or change the dance until we love it most of the time.
Hello and welcome to this, our first official blog entry. I knew I'd be launching a blog around New Year's, and I debated for awhile what to write. After all, my subject matter is no less than all the workings of a very diversified small family farm. Lots of potential subject matter. Like the patron of a new restaurant in town, all the menu items look so tasty it's hard to know where to start. I therefore decided awhile back to just write about what happened today on the farm, whatever that might be. So, ahem, here's today in a nutshell:
Woke up to sunrise temps around 20F, as expected. Water pipes for the house had frozen overnight, also as expected. That's what happens when you buy a rundown old house with a whole lot of things to be fixed. But we're practiced at this wintertime event and we were ready - a stock tank full of water for watering the animals, plenty of water in the pantry for household use, and lots of firewood to keep ourselves warm and snug. What I didn't expect to find during morning chores was a young hen who apparently got more than a little chilled overnight and was struggling to keep warm. Now, chickens can weather temps down to zero and beyond fairly comfortably if they have good body condition, protection from wind, and access to food and (unfrozen) water. But even when all these things are present, sometimes a hen will still have an "off" day. The cold weather only magnifies that.
Choice #1 was to hope she got better on her own. A strategy which doesn't work well on the farm - once livestock show themselves to be feeling poorly, usually some illness is well along. Choice #2 was setting her up in temporary warmer quarters, monitoring her condition and medicating if needed. Easiest way to do that was to put her into a small dog crate and bring her inside. Which is exactly what I did. As a result (and not for the first time this year), we have a hen in the living room, parked in front of the woodstove. She's now nicely warmed up and eating again. I suppose someone with a more developed sense of decor would find her presence objectionable. My husband wasn't so sure that bringing cold animals into the house was a "real" farmer-type thing to do. That is, until his mother told him that his farmer/rancher grandfather used to bring newborn calves in from the Idaho range and warm them up in front of his grandmother's woodstove in the kitchen. After he heard that story, he didn't object anymore. Myself, I like to know my livestock are comfortable and it doesn't cost anything to bring her inside. So now we have a houseguest. Which is fine.
The second thing that happened today was an email on one of the livestock lists, about a pregnant ewe that was down and either sick or aborting or both. But which was it? The new owners were concerned, and unsure how to proceed. Never like seeing those emails of animals in trouble, so I emailed them back and gave them some possible scenarios and treatments for each. Invited the owner to email me back if needed. Sure enough, I got an email shortly thereafter with "it's not Option #1, we don't think it's Option #3 or #4, but we can't really check for Option #2 and now she has a runny nose."
In any walk of life, there are times when we can help those who perhaps don't have as much experience as we do, but then there are times when we need to recognize we in turn could use some assistance. Today was that latter case. Too many things going wrong all at once with this animal for me to feel comfortable rendering a verdict on how best to proceed. Time to hand this off to someone with more experience than myself, who could help the owners wade through all the different symptoms and try to get this ewe up and feeling better again. So I gave my livestock mentor a call, gave her a rundown of what was going on, and asked her to call the owner. Got a followup email awhile later that sure enough, the ewe had delivered dead lambs and might be working on a case of pneumonia as well. But she was apparently starting to feel better after some well-considered and well-guided administration of medicine, supportive care and judicious handling. Timely intervention probably saved not only the ewe's life but also her ability to be productive for those owners. Hopefully she'll still be able to provide healthy lambs and/or nice shearings of wool for them in the future despite this episode. No guarantees in farming; we just stack the odds as best we can in our favor and deal with the rest.
Some have tried to tell me that nursing an animal through illness or injury is a waste of time, money and energy. Perhaps. There are definitely times when you know the odds are so high against that animal recovering, that it's really an act of charity to try to save them. Usually in those circumstances, we at least try to make sure the critter is comfortable. Who wants to be cold, hungry, alone and in pain at the end of one's life? So we do what we can to ease their passing. Other times, animals have shocked us with their recuperative abilities and have recovered from "no chance" illnesses or injuries. I like those days, and we've had more than a few of them. Often, however, it's a mix of advances and setbacks; sometimes the animal recovers and sometimes they don't. In the end, regardless of outcome, it becomes another class in this school we call life, about how to administer to someone in need, then stand back and watch them either make good use of that assistance, or not.
More importantly, it's instructive for individuals (even experienced individuals) to go through all the motions and remember again what all the options are, so that both diagnostics and supportive care become second nature. It's amazing how diagnosing a critter's illness, by running through all the possibilities then eliminating one after another until we arrive at the most likely culprit, can also be used to troubleshoot other issues in life. That piece of equipment not working? Same procedure. That product line not selling? Same procedure. Need to improve efficiency/cut waste/streamline employee training/change the farm layout? It's all the same mental exercise, just with slightly different details. Yet if that skill is never mastered, we're left guessing and taking shots in the dark in a variety of decision-making categories. Regardless of how we make our living.
So here at the end of the day, at the end of the year, and at the beginning of this farm blog, I celebrate cold chickens and sick ewes. Not because I enjoy animals feeling poorly. Rather, because I had two more chances today to not only help critters feel better, but also to help someone become better at this life we call farming. And I in turn learned a few new things as well from my mentor who eventually took over the ewe's case. My husband the pilot would say "any landing you walk away from is a good landing. Any landing that preserves a perfectly usable airplane is a great landing." In this context, I suppose any day that gives us the chance to share knowledge and mercy is a darn good day. Any day that also gives us healthier animals at the end of it is a great day. So, here's to a lot of great days in 2011.