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

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Fiasco: A Farming Failure

First off, HAPPY BIRTHDAY JIM!

So, the story.

Out of the batch of chicks I hatched last year, I had kept 2 crazy little roosters that were out of my dearly departed Silkie hen, Gretel, and my lovely Easter Egger rooster, Percy. I kept them mostly because no one was interested in a Silkie cross: you either want Silkies because they are cute or good incubators, or you want other chickens because they aren’t tiny. These were beautiful roosters, but they weren’t fluffy like Silkies and they were about the size of my regular sized hens… not a good trait in a flock rooster.

And I couldn’t bring myself to kill and eat them because they have… black skin. Apparently they are highly popular in Asian cuisine, but it was a bit off-putting to my Western sensibilities. It just did not look appetizing.

Anyway, a year went by and they began to be more and more of a problem. They were extremely aggressive with the other roosters and terrorized the hens. These little squirts were major punks. Saturday afternoon when I went to refill waterers, I found my sweet Gulliver, once at the top of the pecking order, with a huge gash along the side of his head and a torn (and very bloody) wattle. I brought him home, doctored him up, and put in him the back part of the coop so he could get some peace and quiet.

I was furious. I have no proof that the little punks did it, but the roosters got along fairly well before those two went crazy, so I blame them. I mean, they were virtually pointless, yet attractive, roosters that I had kept around for ridiculous reasons. THEY HAD TO GO. So, Sunday night I let Gulliver out of the back section and shoved the Silkie crosses back there. They were going to meet the ax (metaphorically, as I don’t use an axe to dispatch birds) the next day.

Monday morning rolls around and I do my morning chores, get everyone fed, and go to collect the soon-to-be-coq-au-vin roosters for their appointment. I open the coop door and see a very unhappy sight: both roosters are laying in awkward positions on the coop floor. My gut sinks because I’m almost positive they are dead dead dead. I start to tear up. Which is one of those unusual things that happens to me as a farmer: there I am crying over two roosters who I was on my way to kill. I walk over to the door that separates the sections of the coop and bend down to confirm my horrible suspicion.

And that’s when a whole horde of wasps slams into the side of my face. The impact and initial stings sends me reeling backwards and I manage to fling my glasses off my face in panic. Once I make it out of the coop (which was miraculous since it’s a 1.5 foot step down and I DIDN’T fall), I have to strip my shirt off because the wasps have made it down the neck and are attacking me from the inside.

So, now I’m SERIOUSLY crying, in pain and surprise and anger. My glasses are god knows where and I’m topless in the middle of a cow field at 9 o’clock in the morning. I stumble to the car and quickly head for my parents’ house a 1/2 mile away (still without glasses, a very dangerous proposition as I am severely nearsighted). I run into my mom’s kitchen a blubbering, splotchy, quickly swelling mess (still topless- thank god I put a bra on that morning or my brother would probably be traumatized). I tell her what happened and she shoves me in a cold shower and goes to get Benadryl.

There I am, crying in the shower, naked, while my mom spoon feeds me medicine. Which is kind of ridiculous, but thank god for her and the fact that we’re comfortable with each other, because I was just totally unable to take care of myself in that moment. These are the times when you really appreciate living next to your mother. She didn’t even point out how silly it was that I was crying over dead roosters that I was planning to kill anyway.

Once I’ve calmed down and we’re sure I’m not about to go into anaphylactic shock, Mom slavers me in watery cornstarch to draw out the pain and swelling. A grand total of 8 stings: one scarily close to my eye, one on my temple, one on my earlobe, three on my neck, one on my shoulder, and one heading uncomfortably close to my armpit.

My dad is dispatched to find my glasses and close the fences that I left open in my haste.  When he comes back he confirms that the roosters are in fact dead. They killed each other. Roosters are instinctively aggressive towards other roosters, but roosters that live together generally don’t become THAT dangerous to one another. They will fight for dominance and fight over hens, but it’s not usually a fight to the death for roosters that have been raised together. I knew they were aggressive, hence the death sentence, but they never really fought each other. I was shocked and horrified. I felt really bad. It made me a bit sick to my stomach to think about. It’s just so gruesome.

Dad also informed me that the wasps probably came from a nest that had been built up on the divider door. There are always little nests in the coop but I’ve never had a problem. The divider door is usually open so I guess I never noticed this bunch. Why they didn’t bother me when I was opening and closing the door the two previous days is a mystery. Maybe the battle royale had put them on edge.

We went down that night to deal with the bug problem. Olive oil and water in a spray bottle was our only weapon (I made Dad go in first). No chemicals because I don’t like them and I certainly didn’t want the chickens getting into them. The olive oil (or veggie oil or liquid soap) coats the wasps’ bodies and wings so they can’t fly or breathe well. The ones that don’t suffocate pretty quickly you just squash when they fall to the floor. The chickens had lots of olive oil dressed protein to choose from the next morning!

Grudgingly, I deposited the dead roosters in the woodlot for the coyotes to clean up. By that time I was mostly past the sadness and on to irritation. Those damn little roosters were so spiteful that they robbed me of a lovely coq au vin, even after all the money I spent feeding them for over a year. And I really hate feeding the coyotes.

I had planned (yes, promised) to post this last night, but, in usual fashion, my internet was down when I got home last night. One of the downfalls of living in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully, it’s back today! [Addendum: In the middle of typing up this post, the internet went out again because of a big thunderstorm and won’t be coming back until Monday at the earliest. I seriously can’t catch a break. Posting from my sister’s house.]

Eating Animals… or Not

I promise not to spend so much time talking about my personal eating habits in the future, but I just listened to this wonderful conversation between Anthony Bourdain, who is the host of my very favorite Travel Channel show, and Jonathan Safran Foer on whether or not we should eat meat.

You can listen to the discussion here, which I HIGHLY recommend.

Basically, Bourdain is about as meat-hungry as you can get- he has stated that it’s his reason for living. And Safran Foer is now making lots and lots of money for his recent book Eating Animals, in which he talks about all the reason he is, and we should become, vegetarians. The thing that made this talk so absolutely wonderful, however, is that there were very few things the two actually disagreed on. For that specific reason, this was one of the most informative talks I’ve heard on the subject. No one was angrily trying to prove that they, and they alone, were right and that their “opponent” was some horrible person. Instead, they talked about the real issue at the heart of all this: that factory farming, which produces 99% of available meat, is a very bad thing.

And I have to say that I almost 100% agree with both of them. They are really just two sides of the same coin. The message that one should take away from this conversation, the message that I think is what might save us, is that feeding ourselves should never be a throw-away, thoughtless moment in our day. It should be something imbued with conscious decision and never taken for granted.

I’m the halfway point between Bourdain’s meat lust and Safran Foer’s vegetarianism. I do lust after beautiful cuts of meat and dream of Spanish jamón, but I will only indulge when I know the provenance of the meat (where and how it was raised) or if, as Bourdain mentions, not eating meat would mean that I missed out on something of cultural significance. Which means that, more often than not, I eat like Safran Foer. But, where Safran Foer sees vegetarianism as his path out of the moral, environmental, and social murk that is industrialized farming, my path is actually to eat MORE meat than I have in years, which requires me to raise it myself. And, naturally, to share it with others.

From another interview with Bourdain, Safran Foer, and famous chef Eric Ripert.

ON EATING MEAT OUT OF POLITENESS OR ON CEREMONY
Safran Foer: “People sometimes say to me, ‘Well, we go to my grandmother’s house on Christmas and she makes this thing,’ and I say, ‘Well, then eat that thing, that’s a great use of food. The McNugget is not a great use of food. And if we can all just agree that we’re only going to eat meat when it matters, that we’re only going to eat meat when we really enjoy it, when we care, when it makes a difference, when it serves any kind of social function, that would be eliminating I think 80 percent of the meat we eat.”

LAST WORD
Bourdain: “I will kill a pig and I will eat it. I will shoot an animal in the head and eat it. But I’m not doing it for fun, and I’m not blind to the circumstances and conditions in which animals are raised. I think there’s a lot of common ground here and we’re going to move, hopefully, toward the side of the angels.”

The Great Fence-capade

My father is gone for the month to our other farm on the opposite side of the state. My brother and I are picking up the slack while he’s away. First order of business was to find and “repair” the hole in the fence that the cows were getting out of. Easier said than done: there is about 2 miles of fence to check. So, out we go, brother and I, to check the fence and mark that item off our list.

RIGHT. Two days in and we’re in a bigger mess than we started with. Well, that’s not really true. It would be more fair to say that we just didn’t know the size of the mess to begin with.

Technically, my father runs the farm, but it’s never that simple. My grandfather (who is a practicing lawyer at nearly 80) is a bit of a busybody and likes to think he’s still in charge of everything. My uncle has been in politics for 10 years, but likes to be a weekend farmer. Myy brother is a jack-of-most-trades farm hand and I run my own little poultry business. It’s a bit crazy.

You’d think that will all these people “working” on the farm, things would get done in a timely manner and everything would be in tip-top shape. You’d be sadly mistaken. That saying “too many cooks in the kitchen” always springs to mind when I think about our situation. And it’s really true: it seems to take a committee to get a fence fixed.

That stupid fence has been patched together so much that it’s laughable. Too many MEN thinking “I’ll just fix this section right here with this bit of wire I have handy and then I’ll come back and fix it correctly later.” But later never comes.

There was one stretch of fence about 50 yards long that had at least 6 crimps in it (a crimp sleeve is used to connect 2 pieces of fence wire). And each of those crimps is a potential weak spot. Now, you can’t really build a seriously long fence without using crimps, but they should be used judiciously so that your fence stays nice and strong. When you use them to patch the fence over and over and over, you end up with a fence that snaps whenever an unruly cow decides to run into it, which is exactly what’s been happening here.

There was gate where someone had obviously cut the wire a bit too short. Instead of fixing it correctly, they had used two fence handles, connected together, to bridge the gap. Which was really not sufficient. There was one place where a tree had grown into the fence, basically grounding out the electric current.

When I see a problem I want to fix it correctly and attractively and right then. And the guys roll their eyes at me and groan and wander off to tinker with something else. But then they are back patching that same stupid fence a month later. If, instead, they would just fix the problem correctly instead of making it “good enough for now” then it’s taken care of and you don’t have to think about it again for a good long while.

So, what are we doing for the next few days? We’re fixing the fences correctly. And what does that entail? Just cutting down a few trees that are threatening to fall, restranding an entire section, putting in about 15 new posts, checking every fence insulator, fixing two gates that are broken, adding fence strainers to tighten existing wire, and buying a new fence energizer because the old one WASN’T EVEN WORKING.

I started thinking that all those problems were really generational, that my brother was a bit more like me in just wanting to fix what needs fixing. But, alas, he’s got a lot of man ideas too. He got all stroppy with me this afternoon because I asked him to cut down a thick sapling that had grown up through a gate. He argued with me for at least 15 minutes, saying that gate was never opened so we shouldn’t bother. He’s mostly right, the gate never does get opened, but that’s no reason to let a tree grow through it when you can cut it down in one minute with the chainsaw. Especially when you are standing right there with the chainsaw…

At the end of the work day today, we had a completely ridiculous argument about our fencing equipment, which was all in the bed of his truck. It went something like this:

Brother: Help me clean all this stuff out of my truck.

Me: But we’re going to need it all tomorrow morning.

Brother: But I don’t want my truck to be messy. I’m taking my fiance out tonight.

Me: Fine, whatever. [Helps him drag everything into the garage. He goes in to get a drink. I find a handy 5-gallon bucket and neatly arrange all our fencing odds and ends so they aren’t just strewn about the truck tomorrow. I go to put it in the bed of his truck.]

Brother: [coming out of the house] What are you doing with that bucket?

Me: I arranged all our fencing stuff so we can just grab this bucket and have everything at our fingertips! It’s great. And now it won’t make your truck look messy. [huge grin, thinking I’m a genius.]

Brother: Brilliant. So now I’ve got to keep a bucket of junk in the truck.

Me: But it’s so handy…

Brother: Just leave it in the garage.

So off I go, muttering something like “Thanks Sis! That’s a great idea. It will make life so much easier. We’ll be fencing at great speeds because of your wonderful ingenuity.” And then I found out he was the one with the brilliant idea to hook the two fence handles together!

I don’t mean to make all the men in my family sound like lazy idiots. I know that they have a lot of things to do other than worry about one fence being perfect. They do lots and lots of things I can’t do, like fix the tractor. And I appreciate a fixed tractor, I really do. But there are things that I think I might be much better suited to than they are and fence management might just be one of those things.

Yummies

The madness hit full force today when the birds were introduced to their first watermelon. I’d been meaning to get them one for weeks but, once a watermelon makes it in this house, it rarely makes it out again… So, I finally exercised some self-control and hacked one up for the birds.

The Big Boys and Girls in the main coop went NUTS! To be fair, they go nuts for just about any treat I bring them (hell, they go nuts just seeing a bag in my hand), but this one was pretty impressive. I so wish I’d had the camera! Ernest and Gulliver were dancing around their respective pieces of melon trying to see who could attract more girls to their juicy buffet. The girls couldn’t have cared less if the boys were 10 ft tall bears intent on eating THEM for dinner, so long as they got some watermelon first. It was hilarious.

The newbies, who are in a sectioned off portion of the coop and pen, were a bit hesitant when I threw them their piece. But they got the hang of it soon enough. Even the splash Wyandotte hen, who is painfully timid, came out and got her share of the yumminess.

The teenage chickens and their new pen mates, the babies, were the highlight of the experience. The only time they all get along is when they are eating and this was the perfect example. Shockingly, it was one of the babies who bravely tasted the watermelon first. She pranced right over there and gave it a swift peck. And then another. And then she just went wild, pecking bits off and clucking to her little heart’s content. The other babies and the teenagers couldn’t resist trying it then. They all stood around it in a circle and didn’t let up until it was pecked clean to the rind!

Hansel and Madeline enjoyed theirs. He’s desperately trying to get her attention all the time, so he kept picking pieces off and taking them to her but she wasn’t interested since she was getting her own. It was awfully sweet of him though. The turkeys were ambivalent when I gave them their piece, but they also had pecked it clean when I went to check on them later.

So, watermelon is a roaring success around the farm! Hopefully the ones I planted will come in so I can stop paying an arm and a leg for them at the farm down the road!

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.