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.]

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!

Piggy, Piggy, Please don’t kill me: The REAL MEAT™ Story

There are massive discrepancies in nutritional studies, especially those that are looking for correlations between what we eat and the risk of cancer and heart disease. An NPR report today talks about the fact that processed meats may be more to blame for health problems than what they are calling “fresh cuts.” What’s the major problem here? They aren’t looking at the right factors.

To be clear, there’s nothing especially fresh about store-bought meat: it’s been raised in the Mid-West or overseas, shipped off to slaughter houses usually a few states away, packaged, shipped again (1,000s of miles) to the store, where it waits to be purchased. And even then, once it’s purchased, consumers could feasibly pop it in the freezer for a good long rest. How is that fresh?

I’d have to agree with their assessment that those processed meats are worse than those cuts: processed meats contain a lot more of the additives (preservatives, flavorings, colorings), as well as a lot of salt and nitrates. It’s not a nice list when you really start looking at it.

But I believe it’s naive and misleading to give foods such as bacon and sausages a bad rap and to say that cuts of meat are “healthy.” It’s just not good science. Where, in these studies, are they actually getting down to the nitty-gritty of the issue and uncovering what so many people (and history) have been trying to tell us? It’s not about sausage vs steak, it’s about where it comes from and what goes into it.

The problem:

When you are comparing store-bought meats, maybe the issue is clear. Store-bought meats are almost always from industrial farming. That means

  • cattle who are virtually stationary and subsist on corn (which their bodies aren’t actually designed to digest), hormones, and antibiotics to fatten them up faster and keep them alive until slaughter;
  • pigs raised by the thousands in hog barns where they spend their entire life never being able to turn around (Ever wonder why pigs get their tails docked? It’s because they chew their neighbor’s off in CAFOs);
  • and poultry that has been selectively bred to reach processing weight at 9 weeks of age (chickens) or 18 weeks of age (turkeys), which means that they put on weight so fast that their organs and bones can’t keep up and they drop dead if not slaughtered on time (chickens can live naturally 5-10 years)

I’m not sharing this information as an animal rights argument (although I do believe that argument to a certain extent), but rather as a factor nutritional studies seem to be ignoring. How can one even begin to study the effects that meat has on health and not take these things into account? Why is data being skewed to make meat the culprit when humans have been eating it for millions of years? Yes, your typical person consumes more meat than is probably good for them, but you can’t lay the blame for every health problem on the meat itself- that is, if it’s “real” meat.

We need to define “real” meat then. I would argue that industrial meat is NOT real meat- the animals don’t live real lives or eat real food (meaning what they are biologically designed to eat) or even END UP as real food. Therefore, REAL MEAT™* is natural meat: animals that live natural lives and eat the good, healthy food that they are meant to eat, and then end up nourishing our bodies in natural ways.

The key word there is nourishing. An industrial hot dog doesn’t nourish your body- it fills your tummy and maybe pacifies your inner child. Animals that live non-natural lives do not develop into the same kind of meat. Corn is processed differently in cows than grass, their correct feed, would be, which can only change the nutritional profile of their meat.

An easily demonstrated example is the nutritional profile of eggs. Industrial, cage-raised laying hens are fed mostly corn, soy, and a mixture of other grains. They will never eat fresh grass or munch on bugs (which chickens LOVE). They also will never need grit- small stones that chickens use to grind up natural food since they don’t have teeth- which is believed to contribute healthy minerals to the chickens diet.

Pastured laying hens will spend 90% of daylight hours outside, eating grass and bugs, picking up those healthy minerals from grit, generating lots of Vitamin D, and being happy, healthy chickens. Their eggs will have

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids (which are good for you)
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene
  • 4 to 6 times as much vitamin D

Coincidence? Hardly. Now if we expand that kind of good nutritional science to include the animal itself we find similar results. Grass-fed beef is

  • Lower in total fat
  • Higher in beta-carotene
  • Higher in vitamin E
  • Higher in the B-vitamins thiamin and riboflavin
  • Higher in the minerals calcium, magnesium, and potassium
  • Higher in total omega-3s
  • A healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (1.65 vs 4.84)
  • Higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a potential cancer fighter
  • Higher in vaccenic acid (which can be transformed into CLA)
  • Lower in the saturated fats linked with heart disease

Here are some graphs to peruse, taken from EatWild.com.

chicken with more fat than beef? seriously.

The solution:

So, to get back to the original argument, what about sausages and bacon? Well, it’s all in the details. I’m willing to bet that if you start with REAL MEAT™, stick with traditional seasonings, and don’t overload on the salt, that you’d come up with some pretty healthy and TASTY “processed meats.” Of course, adding seasonings and salt is going to change the nutrition a bit, but surely not SO drastically that it would come even close to the unhealthiness of industrial processed meats.

Buy REAL MEAT™ from small, local farmers with whom you can develop a relationship. This means that you will know exactly how your meats are raised. Local farmers are usually very excited to talk to interested customers. Ask if you can tour the farm. Ask what their feed program is. Ask if they medicate and, if so, how they manage that program. And be a loyal customer- it keeps the good guys in business.

We also need to demand better, more honest nutritional studies. Don’t be swayed by hot new fads in food. Read as much as you can about the real issues and ignore hype. Your body will let you know when you get it right.

Oh, and enjoy the bacon!

*REAL MEAT™ is “trademarked” only to me. It is in no way meant to represent an existing business, organization, or idea. It’s just catchy, ok? 😉

A gaggle, a clutch, a litter… and an adoption

Things have been VERY busy and exciting around the farm this past week. My heart is mending after loosing Fig because I’m now surrounded by many, many new additions, and they are all completely adorable!

As I mentioned before, Fig and Hemy’s kittens were born last Sunday. Two are orange tabbies like their daddy and two are mostly white with orange tinges on their backs. It looks like we’ve got 3 boys and a girl, and one of the orange ones is polydactyl (has extra toes on his front feet) like his mother and Tommy, who is Hemy’s son from a previous litter. They are now a week old and growing like crazy. All of their eyes are now open.

Saturday morning, I got up bright and early to go to a poultry swap over in Dandridge. It was supposed to start at 7 and I got there at 7:45. One of my BYC friends was there with a few birds to sell, but no one else. I just knew I had missed it, like I missed the previous sale I went to. Turns out, I was just EARLY- something that never happens. I hung around a bit looking at the birds that were on sale at the feed store that was hosting the swap and finally saw some that I just had to have.

A lady and her family had a trio of big beautiful blue Wyandottes, a rooster and 2 hens. I wanted them so bad, but I really really don’t need another rooster at the moment. I told her I’d hate to buy the hens and not the rooster, since people seldom buy single roosters. She said “I’ve got the perfect thing then” and pulled out 2 2.5 month old pullets that were out of the trio she was selling. I instantly purchased them for $4 each (which I felt like was a total steal)! They are beautiful little girls, but they are very shy around me at the moment. They are bunking in with Madeline right now, so I’m hoping that we can get to know each other soon.

Several days ago, another BYC friend, Karen, was gracious enough to choose me as the new home for a pair of tufted Roman geese that her brother-in-law had given them. Karen and her husband were starting to fall in love with these goofy geese, but they live on a very busy road and didn’t want to have to keep the geese penned up all the time. I was so excited, and grateful, to be getting them. Thanks Karen!

I decided that they’d be a surprise for my mom for Mother’s Day. I had planned to get my dad’s car all cleaned up and sneak off to pick them up on Saturday, but my parents didn’t end up going to the polo match that was being held on the farm so I had to improvise… I showed up to Karen’s with a hatchback full of chairs and golf gear and just plunked those geese straight in the back! Thank god to waterproof car interiors!

Made it home in one piece and gave my mom the big surprise. And she loved them! She’s decided to call them Ricky and Lucy (as in Ricardo). They are settling in nicely and have had visits from all the cats and dogs, which has been seriously entertaining. And my niece just adores them: they honk and she just giggles her cute little head off!

So, Sunday was Mother’s Day and it was WAY more hectic than I had anticipated. I had checked on Gretel before I went to bed the previous night and there were no signs of impending hatching. In the rush the next morning, I forgot to go see if anything was happening. When I got home at 4pm, I ran down to check and there was a little Mother’s Day present for me: one fluffy white chick and another in the process of coming out of it’s shell! Most exciting was that the second one was out of one of Gretel’s own eggs, which I didn’t think were going to hatch since they’d been refrigerated for 2 days before being sat on!

By the time I went to bed last night, there were 3 chicks hatched, 2 more pipped, and 2 that were taking their time. This morning, there were 6 chicks! All are beautiful and healthy looking. Now, we’re just waiting to see if lucky #7 hatches. Even if it doesn’t, our very first hatch on the farm has been a huge success!

UPDATE: #7 was a dud. But the six chicks are doing well and Gretel is being a wonderful mother, especially since it’s her first time!

Attack of the killer cows

So, we put the chicken fence back up yesterday because we didn’t have a plan B figured out yet. We had to beat the brackets back into shape. I was not pleased with this solution, but it would have to do for now.

Naturally, when I went up to let the chickens out this morning, the damn cows had done it again. This time I had proof- they were still standing in the yard, on top of one of the panels- but at least the chickens weren’t out there when it happened. As I was in a rush to get to Field Day, I had to just leave the chickens in the coop and dash, but not before I called my Dad to whine a little.

Looks like the cows are dead set on getting at the chicken feed and the 1/2 bale of hay that they have as a sofa. Even though they have acres and acres and ACRES of beautiful, fresh green grass, they want chicken feed and hay. It’s ridiculous and terribly frustrating. Plan B better come along, pronto!

**UPDATE**

We moved the chicken wagon over into one of the hay fields. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s working for now. The chickens are in paradise- some tall grass to hide in, TONS of clover to eat, and no more cows running through their yard. I’m concerned that chicken paradise might turn into chicken heaven because they are now directly between the forest and a thicket, prime fox territory. So far, so good. But I’m still nervous.