Memories on the Land

This is a blog post that I started months ago but never got around to finishing. As you will see, I was going through a mental rough patch. It’s the reason I stopped blogging, because for a while I felt like I didn’t have anything positive to say. And then life got in the way and I got busy (more on why I’m so busy soon) and I just didn’t think about blogging. Hopefully I’m back in the habit.

I haven’t blogged in quite a while. Things have been… kind of crazy and weird lately and I’ve not been able to get my thoughts in order to put anything down. Hopefully I’ll make some sense of a couple of things so I can talk about them but for right now I just want to be a little nostalgic.

Over on one of the forums I read, someone started a thread asking people to post pictures of themselves from their childhoods. It’s a great thread and people are having a lot of fun remembering and sharing. A lot of us realize that our desire to be self-sufficient and close to our food and the land can be traced to our childhood interactions with older people, usually grandparents and great-grandparents, who still embraced older ways of doing things.

This was certainly my experience and I wanted to share it. Mostly, I wanted to commit some of those memories to print so that if I ever start to forget why I’m doing some of these things I have something I can look to. So, this is basically a chronicle of my life on the land.

my mom and I

I was born on a farm in western Tennessee. Well, not ON the farm, but you know what I mean. The farm was owned by my great-grandparents and is where my father’s father had grown up. My parents had grown up in eastern Tennessee, where most of their family lived, but moved to west Tennessee when they got married (at 19) so my dad could run the place. This meant that the only family members I really spent time with when I was growing up were my great-grandparents and my farmer parents.

My great-grandparents with my parent’s at their wedding

My great-grandparents, Ladd and Allie May, had been subsistence share-croppers their whole lives. They struggled a lot but they always managed to make do. When my grandfather made it big as a lawyer, his first order of business was to buy the land his parents had been renting (and as much surrounding land as he could) and set them up for an easier life. But, for them, an easier life didn’t mean grocery stores and modern conveniences (although my grandmother became obsessed with collecting china dolls), it just meant that they didn’t have to worry whether there would be enough or they would lose the farm- there was always enough now.

My great-grandmother’s flour hopper

Growing up, I spent a part of most days with them. Mornings found me, and later my little sister, dodging angry hens while Grandmother collected eggs. She was a serious woman, but not stern, and the most excitable and funny we ever saw her was when she would find a hole in the chicken fence and evidence of a fox intruder. She would scream into the woods and threaten “that damn, infernal fox” with all kinds of horrible deaths if he didn’t leave her chickens alone. After putting the fear of God and an angry Southern woman into all foxes in the neighborhood, we would head into the house to start baking. This is my most indelible memory of Grandmother: the taste of flour in the air, the smell of biscuits rising in the oven, and the whirring arm of an 80-something little granny whipping egg whites and sugar at the speed of light to make the very best meringue I’ve ever eaten. She made those biscuits fresh every day. She made a pie from scratch most days of the week. She bought raw milk from a guy up the street and churned her own butter. She spent hours and hours “putting by” (canning and preserving). And she always took the time to show me how to do what she was doing.

Granddaddy worked a 2 acre garden, growing almost everything we ate, including lettuce, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, cucumbers, tomatoes, okra, zucchini, peppers, strawberries, grapes, watermelons, cantaloupe, and MUCH more. The back yard was full of tart apple trees, peach trees, pear trees, and fence rows full of wild blackberries. Even when money wasn’t a concern and he was getting on in age, he still gardened his whole plot. It was just in his genes. But his real passion was fishing. He’d take off on his four-wheeler (we’re talking a man in his 80s) with his poles and fish basket and disappear into the trees to his favorite fishing spot. He’d always be home just in time for Grandmother to pop those fish in the skillet and for all of us to sit down to dinner.

My dad brought animals home from the fields

My dad was in charge of all the big things going on around the farm. We raised beef cattle and pigs and grew corn and wheat. I was a serious daddy’s girl. During harvests, he spent so much time on the combine that I started going with him so we could spend time together. He kept a pillow and blanket in the little spot behind his seat and I would curl up back there and go to sleep. Dad was always bringing animals home for me to see. He brought home every dead poisonous snake he found so that I would know how to identify them. He even brought home fawns that he found in the fields.

The most exciting part of the year for me was hog killing time. I know that sounds like a gruesome thing for a little kid to love, but believe me, it was fantastic. It’s a community event with family and friends participating and, later, enjoy the fresh pork. When you kill a hog, it’s all hands on deck. There is a lot to do and time is of the essence. My dad and some of the other men would dispatch the hogs, which can be quite dangerous, and the rest of us would be at our battle stations. First, you have to gut it, but you can’t just go in there and start yanking things about. You want the entire contents of the body cavity to come out mostly intact. This keeps nasty things in the intestines, etc, from tainting the meat. Plus, there are lots of useful organs you don’t want to damage, such as the heart and livers and kidneys, which are yummy, and the intestines which are extremely handy later. Once gutted, the hog is parted up. Most of the cuts are then frozen for cooking throughout the year, but bacon and hams are immediately started in a brine (very salty water) or dry-packed in salt.

where pork cuts come from

The part that I loved was making sausage. Basically, you take all the little bits that don’t really add up to anything (the trimmings from steaks and bits from the shoulders and flanks) and run them through a grinder. We had a hand-cranked grinder, so it was safe for me to operate. This, for a 5-year-old, is possibly the coolest thing in the entire world. Once the meat is ground, you throw it in a big bowl or tub and mix in your flavorings: salt and pepper, herbs and spices, peppers, onions, or whatever sounds good. You mix this up really good and cool for a while. By this time, someone has cleaned and scraped the intestines- a delicate job definitely not suited to young hands. The minced meat mix is then stuffed into the intestines, twisting at even intervals, to create links. These usually go into the smoker. And end up delicious.

Mostly, I spent my childhood outside, growing things and playing with animals. I spent a lot of time around cowboys and bullfighters (commonly referred to as rodeo clowns) because my dad rode the rodeo circuit. I went to fairs and attended the World’s Biggest Fish Fry every year. I had an idyllic childhood. It was wonderful.

good luck kiss at the fair

Me at 3 years old

The New Corporate Farming Scheme, part 1

I’ve always appreciated Whole Foods Market. They provided a place for people to purchase organic foods at a time when that wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do. It’s nice and convenient to be able to walk into a Whole Foods and do one-stop shopping. And Whole Foods has basically destroyed many corporate models of the billionaire CEO who cannot relate to the lower level employees: lowest earners at Whole Foods make about $13/hr ($27,000/yr) plus very generous benefits, while company chairman John Mackey made only $342,000 in 2006. That is something to be respected.

But it’s important not to give Whole Foods a pass just because they have an employee friendly, organic-loving business mindset. Let us not forget that they are a MAJOR corporation and, as such, they have to make money. The major critique of the organic movement of today, and of Whole Foods, is the industrialization of organic farming. Where the organic movement of the 1960s and 70s stressed the negative ecological impact of pesticides and herbicides as well as monocropping, agricultural monopolies, and long-distance shipping, today’s mainstream movement focuses almost solely on pesticides and herbicides. This has allowed giant corporations to inject conventional factory-farm methods into the “organic business.” Hence the rise of California’s organic mega-farms which dominate the industry- and represent the bulk of products on offer at places like Whole Foods.

What’s the problem with that, really? Well, a lot. Growing organic produce or raising organic meats in industrial systems severely impacts the benefits that are associated with organics: industrial organics use more water, have increased soil erosion, require a lot of petroleum (from running farm machines to shipping the product cross-country), and do not safe guard against mistreatment and confinement of livestock. And most of the mainstream organic mega-farms are, in fact, owned by the same companies that sell conventional industrial products.

Who Owns Organic (from cornucopia.org)

And that’s where things get particularly irritating for me. One of the key marketing strategies for industrial organics and, particularly, Whole Foods, is what Michael Pollan (Omnivore’s Dilemma) called “supermarket pastoral.” It is now commonly referred to as farmwashing: using idyllic farm-fresh images to sell food, regardless of its provenance. Here are some images that you might find familiar.

Hillshire Farms

Perdue Poultry

Jimmy Dean

Cascadian Farms (organic)

Organic Valley (organic)

Notice a pattern? The idyllic farm setting, the gently rolling hills, the sun shining on the perfect little farmhouse. Strange how similar they are? Not really. They are perfectly planned to appeal to our sentimental sides, the part of us that wants to believe in the wholesome family that gets up at dawn to harvest the wonderful, fresh food that grows on that farm. But none of those companies, save Organic Valley (maybe), has much to do with family owned farms anymore. Pictures of animal confinement, slaughter houses, and office buildings just don’t sell groceries though.

So you find yourself in a Whole Foods, looking at happy farm images, reading farmer profiles on banners, and seeing signs that say “Buying organic supports the small, family farmers that make up a large percentage of organic food producers.” And you feel good about doing the right thing. But what they don’t put on signs is that, while there are a lot of “small, family farmers that make up a large percentage” of the producers, their share of the sales and profits is minuscule compared to the industrial organics. And the organic apples that you are buying in February aren’t coming from those local, small farmers that are profiled. They are coming from South America.

Tune in for the rest of the story tomorrow.

Wet

I was out pulling weeds in the garden this morning when it started to rain. Usually, I rather enjoy gardening in the rain- it’s a whole hell of a lot cooler then, which you don’t ignore in the hot, muggy South. Since it wasn’t coming down to hard- and I seriously needed to do this weeding- I just kept at it.

The garden is being overrun by grass and weeds because it’s been raining about every 3 days. It hasn’t been raining a whole lot, but my garden has a bit of a water retaining problem plus a lot of clay, so it becomes a mushy, swampy mess pretty easily. Just when it dries out enough to really do any work, here comes another little shower and there goes my chances of not working in a mud hole.

So, as I said, I just kept at it. I usually weed by hand because I’m seriously crap with a hoe- I typically destroy all the veggies and leave the weeds plenty of room to grow. Since this garden has been plagued with issues from the start, I can’t really afford to go hacking at my plants. Anyway, I’m down on my hands and knees, weeding the carrots (which is really hard since they are quite delicate), enjoying the fact that it’s not 95° and humid. I’m getting damp but my garden hat is keeping my glasses dry and that’s really all I need.

And then, out of nowhere, the sky just completely opens up. I get soaked COMPLETELY in the time it takes me to stand up, without stepping in the carrot bed, and put my flip-flops back on. So soaked, that I basically look like I just jumped in the lake. We’re talking, water dripping off my bra soaked.

And that’s when I remembered that the cover was off the pen that the chickies and poults were in, including the injured one I had JUST put back in there this morning. So, I squelch through the muck as fast as I can, hop in the car soaking wet and, now, covered in mud, and hightail it back to the house.

The poor little babies are huddled under the door to the pen trying to stay dry but not succeeding since the rain is coming at them sideways. I throw the cover over the pen and drop to the ground to make sure everyone is ok and not completely soaked. They seemed fine once the imminent threat was gone. Thank heavens.

So I start to head inside to get some dry clothes. Then I realize I might as well take advantage of this downpour- waste not, want not, right? So, I grab the box of toiletries that I keep in the car and I head around the back of the house to where the gutter feeds into the rain barrel: I can unhook the gutter easily from the barrel and it’s filtered at the top.

So, yes, today I enjoyed a completely nature provided shower, right out in my backyard. Thank god for remoteness and a healthy tree line!

I can’t be trusted…

… anywhere near a poultry sale, apparently.

Today I drove down to Delano, TN, to the Amish community’s market. The last Saturday of every month they have a small animal sale and I was dying to see what they had to offer. The whole thing was just wonderful. I took lots of pictures, but tried really hard to respect the Amish tradition of not being photographed.

The community is only a few miles off the highway. You take a simple right turn, go under a railroad overpass, and step back in time. As soon as I pulled up, I could see 7 horse and buggies tied up behind the livestock barn. There were charming straw-hatted gentlemen directing traffic into the nearly full parking lot.

There was a large crowd, probably about 100 people, gathered around the entrance of the barn since the doors were still shut. At exactly 9am the doors swung open and it was like a mad dash to get inside. It was so cool! They had rabbits, guineas, turkeys, chickens, pigeons, a few goats and calves, a lone pig, and even a horse for sale. All of them looked perfectly healthy and well-cared for and I had no problems finding birds to buy. On the other hand, flagging down one of the “nice young men in the straw hats with a clipboard” to write up my purchases was a bit of a chore. There were just so many people trying to buy before everything got snatched up.

I finally flagged down one of the nice young men and bought 3 Araucana pullets (young hens) which will lay blue eggs, 2 Bourbon Red poults (baby turkeys), and 2 Royal Palm poults. I was so very excited to get all of these: my mom and I have been wanting blue eggs since I first got the chickens and I’ve wanted turkeys almost as long. It was very exciting.

After I secured my new birds, I went to check out the market. They had a lot more available than I would have thought for May: tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, lettuces, cauliflower (even orange cauliflower!), preserves, bread, and even some personal items like shampoo and soap, and home goods like candles. It was really very cool. I bought some tomatoes, cucumbers, whole wheat bread, salsa, blueberry preserves, and apple butter. I ate one of the tomatoes on the way home and it was wonderful.

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After the market, I drove through the community. It was really beautiful with all the windmills and buggies and huge, perfect gardens. There were several chicken tractors being run in with the produce, especially in the orchards. I took my time and tried to see everything.

On my way home, I stopped off to pick up two Wheaten Marans- one male and one female- from a BYC member. That brought my grand total of purchased birds for the day up to nine. Nine wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t already have 5 chicks from the Mother’s Day hatch as well as more that were hatching today. 5 of those have hatched so far, with another 4 possible.

So, um…. I’ve now got a lot of birds to take care of. But I love it!

A Day in the Life

A friend (who lives in the city) asked me recently what I did all day in my new life as a farmer. I found myself at a bit of a loss for words. I didn’t know how to convey what goes on everyday without sounding flippant or boring. The solution, it seemed only natural to me, was to make a schedule, so that’s what you find here. Enjoy!

8 am Get up and blearily drive to let the chickens out of the main coop. Feed them and check waterers. (I know, 8 am is pretty late for a farmer to be getting up, but I’m seriously, seriously not a morning person.)

8:20 am Arrive back home and let the chickens out of the isolation coop. Feed and water them. Try to play with the new girls, even though they don’t like me yet.

Ollie

8:35 am Feed cats: Ollie, Tommy and Penny

8:40 am Feed Hemingway. Clean litter box, rearrange the blankets she’s destroyed in the night and cuddle the kittens.

Gus

8:55 am Feed Gus.

9 am Let Ricky and Lucy Goose out of their pen to enjoy the yard for the day. Check their numerous water buckets.

Gretel’s chicks

9:20 am Check on Gretel and the chicks in the brooder. Inevitably clean shavings out of everything.

9:30 am Feed and water Lilli and Lyra (the broody Orps) and check their eggs.

9:40 am Take Daisy out.

9:50 am Get Daisy back in the house for her breakfast.

9:55 am Finally get to sit down and eat some breakfast myself.

10 am Work on the house remodel.

farm fresh eggs

12 pm Head back to the main chicken coop to collect eggs and give any treats I’ve collected for that day. Spend a few minutes hanging out with the chickens.

Daisy

12: 30 pm Take Daisy out again.

12:40 pm Check on Gretel and the chicks.

12:50 pm Usually grab some lunch unless something distracts me and I forget (this happens a lot more than I’d like to admit… and it’s usually the most unimportant stuff).

1:30 pm Back to work on the remodel.

4 pm Gardening. Well, right now it’s really weeding and waiting for something real to grow. Cucumbers are coming up, as are peas and some corn and beans. Still getting some things planted. It’s a bit slow going, being my first big garden project.

7 pm Go for a swim. I say it’s for exercise, but it’s really because I love the water and I’m gross after gardening.

8 pm Feed cats and dogs.

8:15 pm Take Daisy out yet again.

8:30 pm Head back to the main coop to check for any more eggs and close the chickens up for the night.

8:45 pm Close up the girls in the isolation coop.

Hemingway and the kittens

8:50 pm Put the geese back in their pen.

9 pm Check on Gretel and the chicks again. Turn their light off.

9:10 pm Check on Lilli and Lyra again and turn their light off.

9:20 pm Eat dinner (yes, that late), read/internet/watch tv… whatever strikes my fancy.

12 am Take Daisy out for the final time and head to bed.

8 am Wake up and do it all over again.

Then there’s the less regular chores:

  • Move the main chicken coop once a week, 1.5 hrs
  • Do a feed run every 2 weeks,  2 hrs
  • In the summer, I add mowing hay to the list, which takes about 3 days to mow, 2 days to rake, and 3 days to bale and put away (and gets done about once a month)
  • In the winter, I add 2 hrs every afternoon/evening for putting hay out for the horses and cows
  • Oh, and try to have a social life… accomplished much less frequently than the feed run

Saturday, for something different, I bathed the 4 kittens and trimmed their toenails (74 toenails rather than the usual 72, because one of the kittens is polydactyl), and I tried to get the geese into the pond, which didn’t work out all that well.

So… I stay pretty busy. It might not seem like all that much to some people, but I at least had nights, weekends, and holidays off when I worked a “normal” job. And none of my coworkers ever pooped on me either.

Today on the farm

Today started out good. I got to keep my niece overnight and most of the morning, which is always delightful. We played and napped and had a generally nice day.

And then the real fun began. Today was manure day! Now, that might not sound so fun to most people, but it’s music to a gardener’s ears. I talked my dad and brother into loading the dump truck with composted horse manure and bringing it down to the garden. As soon as the tractor scoop hit the manure pile, I was all smiles. It was BEAUTIFUL compost- rich, dark black, just the right amount of sponginess. It smelled like gardening success and money! It was the kind of manure that you know will grow great veggies. And, it was completely free! I knew I’d find a way for all those horses to be sustainable!

It seemed like so much compost when it filled the dump truck completely. But once it was dumped next to the garden, the pile looked so insignificant compared to the huge clay pit the garden has become. And it was pretty paltry- it spread over about 1/2 the 65 x 165 ft garden. On a positive note, the soil looked amazing where we did get to till the manure in, a great blend of the black manure and the orangey-brown clay. It’s going to shed water a lot better and be so much richer for growing in.

We were about to go get another full load, when my grandfather arrived. This is where the day took a decided downturn. In the past few years, my grandfather has started forgetting things. The man has always had a sharp mind- he’s still practicing law at 78 years old- but he doesn’t remember a lot of things anymore. He makes copious notes for work so it’s not as noticeable or problematic, but it makes dealing with him on the farm nearly impossible.

Take the garden as an example. I’ve been talking to him since December about wanting to plant a garden of my own this year. He was more than happy for me to do that as he’s only planted tomatoes, peppers, and okra the last couple of seasons. He just wanted me to let him know what my plans were, as he always needs to feel like he’s in charge even if he isn’t. I was fine with that- it’s his garden space after all.

So I tried to talk to him about it several times. I took him the seed catalogs I was looking at. I made a list of the varieties I was interested in. I asked his opinion. I asked if there were things he wanted me to order for him. Every time he would say “That sounds good but we’ll talk more about it later.” After months of this, I just went ahead and ordered what I wanted to. I knew he had already planted tomatoes, peppers, and okra (shocker) but they weren’t heirloom, which is what I was interested in. He had planted in the southern garden, so I planned my garden for the northern one.

Anyway, today he pulled up just as we were tilling in the manure. I could tell that he was upset about something and I had a feeling it was going to be my fault. He cornered my dad where he thought I couldn’t hear him and started saying that I hadn’t talked to him about any of this other than to say that I wanted to plant a garden, how I was just doing whatever I wanted without consulting him first, and how he needed the garden space. So my dad called me over to explain the situation.

As I said, the northern garden is 65 x 165 feet, in addition to the 50 x 130 feet in the southern garden. He’s only planted about 1/3 of the southern garden and I can’t use up all of the northern one. I told him that I wasn’t planning on using all of the northern garden so he was more than welcome to use what he needed. I told him some of what I was planting. We got into this tangled argument about gardening styles (he doesn’t understand why I would want to plant  in blocks instead of long rows), what to plant (he’s upset that I’m planting onions and eggplant because he doesn’t think we need them), and just how much space each of us actually needs. I’m trying to be as concessionary as possible since it’s his garden, but I’m finding myself more and more frustrated by the whole situation. It’s no one’s fault he can’t remember the numerous conversations we’ve had, but he won’t admit that he might have forgotten something and I can’t wait forever for him to make a decision.

So, for now, unfortunately, everything is put on hold- again. He wants to see my garden plan and I’m sure I’m going to have to change everything to suit him. Is it SUCH a big deal to change things around to make him happy? No. But it will take time that I don’t really have. So many things should be in the ground already and now there is another roadblock. Sheesh.

Then, to cap the day off nicely, one of the 2-year-old cows delivered prematurely and the calf was stillborn. I’ve been watching some of the others so closely because they seem like they are ready to explode, but I wasn’t worried about this one. It was her first calf and I feel so bad for her. She was just standing there in the field looking lost. She kept licking him to wake him up. We moved him out of the field to encourage her to go get some water (she wouldn’t leave him) and so the coyotes wouldn’t be in the field around the other calves, but she keeps going back to look for him and calling out. It’s so sad.

And that’s the nature of farming, the constant ups and downs. More calves will be born and this one will soon be forgotten. The garden will get planted one way or another. But for today, it’s been a bit of  a headache with a dash of sadness.

Organic Crop Field Day

Today was the Field Day at the University of Tennessee Organic & Sustainable Crop Production Research Farm. For free, growers from all over the state are invited to come listen to 9 presentations given by UT Agriculture researchers and professors, meet with various organization representatives, sample some local food, tour the organic gardens, and see an equipment demonstration. This year’s presentations were:

  • Extending your Production Season with High Tunnels
  • Growing Small Fruits Organically
  • Natural Alternatives for Disease Control
  • Organic Production: A Systems Approach
  • Solving the Mysteries of Marketing
  • UT Market Garden Project and Internship Program
  • Reduced-till Broccoli Research
  • Utilizing Cover Crops in Organic Systems
  • Composting 101
  • and “Plants You Didn’t Know You Could Eat,” a talk given by special speaker Jeff Ross, Garden Manager at Blackberry Farm (and the president of my Farmers’ Market)

The information was really good. Especially informative were the presentations on cover crops and composting, two things that I’ve been doing, but doing pretty blindly. I’m in love with the high tunnels but I just don’t think they are practical for us, at least not at this point. Instead, I really want to get some movable hoop houses, which are basically the same theory, just smaller and, most importantly, cheaper.

The vendor tent was really informative too. I picked up literature from

  • The Weston A. Price Foundation– The Foundation is dedicated to restoring nutrient-dense foods to the human diet through education, research and activism. (Got lots of info on their raw milk campaign.)
  • Tennessee Farm Fresh– A specialized program in cooperation with the Tennessee Farm Bureau and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture that offers both producers and consumers the chance to support their local economy.
  • Center for Profitable Agriculture– Committed to the mission of increasing the value of Tennessee’s economy through new, expanded and improved processing and marketing of agricultural, aquacultural and forestry products in Tennessee.
  • UT Extension– Working with farmers, families, youth, and communities, Extension helps improve people’s lives by addressing problems and issues at the local, state, and national levels. (Picked up info on organic certification, building healthy soils, and increasing farm biodiversity)
  • Maryville Farmers’ Market– Picked up my application for a booth!

All that and lunch was free! Well, it was all free. It was a great day. Met several local people who share my interests, found out a lady up the road from me has dairy goats and is involved with Weston A. Price, and got to drool over some seriously beautiful produce. Can’t wait til Field Day next year!