Every. Single. Morning.

The layers are near the cattle in a weedy, overgrown pasture complete with brush, fallen limbs and dead trees. Every morning I walk out to let the birds out of their house. Every morning I see this and think, “Oh No! Is that a dead cow? How did it get there? What could have happened?”

DeadSomethingThen I remember. It’s just an old log.

DeadTreeEvery morning. Every. Stinking. Morning. I should probably have a cup of coffee before I do my chores. And I should burn that old log.

Egg Sale? Are You Crazy?

Our eggs are on sale again. No. I’m not crazy. I can do math.

I have X birds. They eat every day whether they lay eggs or not. They use roost space eggs or not. They need to be protected eggs or not. The costs of the bird, the feed, the housing and the fencing are fixed. What varies is the number of eggs.

egg sale 1

Let’s make the math simple. Let’s say I have 100 birds. I can normally count on 100 birds laying 65-70 eggs. But egg production varies seasonally. We get few eggs when the days are short. We get few eggs when the weather gets hot. We get many eggs when the birds are young, fewer when they get older. They take time off each fall to molt. This is a biological, not mechanical, system and, consequently, it varies.

But, again, what doesn’t vary is the cost. I own the fence and the birds…now I have to pay for it.

So let’s say the flock costs me $15/day to maintain. When the birds lay 66 eggs, 6 are going to be cracked, checked or misshapen and can’t be sold. That leaves 5 dozen for me to sell. I’m not going to work for free so we charge $4/dozen for our eggs and we bring in $20 gross, $5 net.

You down?

Right now the flock is laying more like 90 eggs/day. That’s more eggs for no additional cost, even if I can’t sell 10% of them. I add in two additional cartons ($0.30 each), and have more eggs in my egg case than my regular customers can buy. As nice as it would be to bring in $28/day, I need to sell those eggs, not feed them to the pigs. This is my chance to attract new customers. I run a 25% off sale. Folks who think $4 is too high for eggs are happy to pay $3. If I get $3 for 7 dozen eggs I’m grossing $21/day. The extra cartons knock me down to $5.40 net. That extra $0.40 is probably absorbed by the extra tray space and wash/sort time.

egg sale 3

Now, some suggest that I should use the surplus cash coming in right now to make up for the expected shortfall this winter. I think that is sound theory except for two things. First, we have a new layer flock coming online soon and should not see much of a winter production drop. Second, I don’t know what to do with all the eggs I am collecting these days. Let’s go drum up new business! Eggs are a little more than a labor of love anyway.

I’m collecting more eggs for the same cost. I’m gaining exposure to new customers. I’m making more money at the end of the day…even with cheaper eggs. But the real question is, “Why are we getting more eggs?” Good question. I think it comes down to management. Not only are we collecting more eggs overall, we are collecting more salable eggs. I’ll start with the salable eggs. With our old hoop-style chicken house we had to bend down to go in and collect the eggs…so we didn’t want to do it very often. So most days we would just collect eggs once each day. When there are more than 4 or 5 eggs in a nest box the birds tend to crush an egg or two, smearing the remaining eggs and nesting material with broken egg mess and bits of shell. Now that we can collect the eggs outside of the structure while standing we don’t seem to mind collecting eggs late in the morning and again in the evening. We are also doing a better job of keeping fresh, clean nesting material in the boxes. As a result we are able to sell a higher percentage of the eggs we collect.

egg sale 2

But we are also just getting more eggs. To the point that I plan to add another nest box array. Some of this is seasonal. Longer days and unusually cool weather make it better for the birdies. But I think most of it is due to recent changes to our housing situation. We built a new layer house on wheels. I insulated the roof of the building and provided for excellent ventilation. The high yesterday was in the 90′s but inside of the building was cool and breezy. I was removing soiled bedding from the interior of the house and dust was not a problem. I wasn’t even warm until I stepped out of the building. Beyond the house, we have just turned our birds free. Grandpa’s rock collection spans most of the farm making it difficult to step in fence posts for netting so we are just letting the older birds run. That creates a few real problems like predation, hidden eggs and birds roosting in strange places. However, the birds are able to scratch and gather from a much larger area, lowering their feed consumption. They especially seem to like the horse stalls where they find undigested oats. This would work much better if we had a larger farm. If we had 300 acres (and 150 cows) we could move the chickens further each time, keeping them busy in new places. I’ll have more to say about fully free range birdies another time.

Back to the point, more food, less heat, better housing, more convenient nest boxes…these things all combine to break all records for egg production on our farm. It’s not uncommon for us to collect 100 eggs from 110 birds.

So eggs are on sale right now with the hope that we can establish ties with new customers…customers who were reluctant to give us a chance at $4. With luck, they will try our eggs, notice the difference and offer us additional chances in their kitchens.

 

Buying a Farm: Farmer’s Progress Chapter 9

I’m afraid I’m a terribly sexist person. Worse, I am sexist without remorse. When selecting candidates for the position of intimate lifetime companion I only interviewed women. But I did interview a lot of women and feel, ultimately, I made an excellent choice. The fact that I can’t imagine life with another woman is evidence that I didn’t marry Julie simply because she is female. Julie is my wife, not simply some lady who lives in the same house and acts as cook, cleaning lady and…um…exercise partner. I knew what I wanted when I was looking for her. When I found her I made a fool of myself trying to monopolize her attention (boy did I ever).

FarmersProgress

Henderson begins this chapter by saying there are a couple of four word phrases that will change your life. The first is “Will you marry me?” The second is, perhaps one day only, when you come to agreement on a farm and say, “I will take it.”

Henderson was making a little joke at the start of the chapter but his little joke is worthy of additional reflection. Buying a farm is a big deal and one should proceed with caution and move forward with purpose.

…if you have a definite long-term policy of progressive farming in mind, a farm is one of the cheapest things you can buy at the present time, either as a source of wealth, food, or future happiness. I once met the previous owner of our farm, and he said to me, ‘I would not have sold that farm for twice the money, had I known what could be done with it.’ I replied, ‘It would not be sold for twenty times the money we gave for it, in view of what has been done to it!’

There is little reason to buy land just for the sake of buying land. The work is too hard. The burden too great. It really is not for everybody. But if you have a vision, it is worth seeking out additional counsel. I don’t feel that Henderson says all there is to say about taking a farm so I’m calling in assistance from M. G. Kains. His book Five Acres and Independence is worth reading as well. Chapter 3 is titled Tried and True Ways to Fail.

Anybody can buy a farm; but that is not enough. The farm to buy is the one that fits the already formulated general plan – and no other! It must be positively favorable to the kind of crop or animal to be raised – berries, eggs, vegetables, or what not. To buy a place simply because it is “a farm” and then to attempt to find out what, if anything, it is good for, or to try to produce crops or animals experimentally until the right ones are discovered is a costly way to gain experience…

That one quote neatly summarizes the bulk of Henderson’s entire chapter. Begin with the end in mind. What is your vision? Lay it all out. What do you want to do? Because, really, any old scrap of land won’t do. Some places are a little more wet, a little more dry, a little more grass or a little more forest. What, in Salatin’s terms, is the unfair advantage you could leverage on this land. Rather than imposing your will on the landscape, how can you nestle in your little enterprise in such a way that you enhance the local ecology?

Just as I was picky about my wife (blonde, thin and tall were at the bottom of my list, btw) I was picky about my farm. My goodness Julie and I must have looked at every bit of land in Macoupin, Jersey, Greene and Madison counties that was for sale over a 3-year period. At one point we nearly purchased a 10-acre hill knowing we would have to tear the house down and start over. We moved to grandma’s house intending to keep our stuff here while we continued to look elsewhere. I remember grandma telling me that she was worried that none of her children or grandchildren even wanted the farm. Almost everyone else moved away. Before we knew it we transitioned from renting an acre with the house to owning 20 acres. Then to owning 60 acres, barns, buildings, bins…the works. Are we better off owning this mess than renting it?

Henderson has a lot to say on the notion of renting vs. buying.

If you rent you will pay away the value of the farm over the next twenty or thirty years and be no nearer owning it. If you buy, and the land is nationalized, you will be robbed of a greater part of your capital…and you will be reduced to the level of a tenant, but under an absentee landlord represented by officials, lacking the two inseparable virtues of the best type of private landowner – love of the land, and wisdom in dealing with it.

Later on he talks about looking at farms by talking to neighbors and finding out the history of the land. Was it recently owned or recently rented? How long were the tenants there? Tenants tend to strip resources thinking only of the short-term. They also tend to leave messes. Our pastures are filled with thorny trees, our barns are in disrepair and much of our infrastructure needs to be replaced because there hasn’t been a loving owner since grandpa died. Dad has enough to do on his farm, he can’t come over here to cut sprouts. Nobody was paying him to. No cousins showed up. The long line of tenants didn’t care. So here we are.

But we do know the history of the farm. I know who built which building and what the buildings were designed for. The loft in the horse barn used to be filled with timothy hay. I know when the barn was remodeled for milking. Grandpa always filled the barns with hay and the silo with corn silage. Every year. I know where the orchard used to be and its placement, in relation to the farm, makes a lot of sense. I garden where my grandma gardened. My great-grandfather successfully grew rocks. My grandfather successfully grew rocks. I need to break that pattern of soil loss…but I know the history of the farm.

Henderson is also concerned (rightly) about location suggesting you avoid buying land along a highway as anything portable is not safe.

We live in an age when there is no respect for property, and if you catch anyone the magistrates will probably weep over the poor fellow and put him on probation. It is hard having to sit up night after night in the weeks before Christmas to guard your turkeys because the local police tell you they cannot do anything about it. A farmer once told me he started to keep guard through fear that thieves might come, and ended by longing that they should, that he might at least have the satisfaction of shooting someone who had kept him out of bed so long.

But it’s not all about roads and rocks and dirt and buildings. It’s not all about location and rainfall patterns and utilities. Buying land is also about people. You will have neighbors. Henderson has a humorous quote on that topic.

One wise old farmer used to ask new neighbors where they came from, and what the people were like in that district. And if he was told they were very nice, or the opposite, he would say, ‘Ah, hes. You will find them just the same here.’

I am related to most of my neighbors in one way or another and somehow they are just like the neighbors I have had elsewhere. That’s neither good or bad, just a reflection of who I am…maybe, at times, a little too independent for my own good.

But Henderson wants you to talk to the neighbors even going as far as to give the example of a man who, when looking to buy a farm, walks the last four miles to the place and stops at every house along the way asking for directions and opinions of the place. Henderson suggests you look at the soil type and slope and includes some very insightful comments about each.

Not only am I terribly sexist, I am also, apparently, farmist. And that’s a very good thing. Just as Julie had to have more than a pulse to be my companion, not every scrap of land will meet your needs…your goals…your ideals. Look at a lot of land. Define your vision. Make sure the land you are committing to is not just suitable but also a good value.

Incidentally, if you intend to farm really well, and maintain a high output per acre and per person employed, the actual rent you pay is of little importance; it is certainly not worth arguing in terms of shillings per acre.

Going on the Attack

I use these couple-times-a-week missives to tell you what’s happening on the farm, how we do something specific or just how much I love my wife. I really love that woman. I can’t think of a post where I’ve simply gone off about something someone else has done. It may exist. I hope it doesn’t. We depend on our customers and consider most if not all of them to be friends. I don’t complain about my customers nor do I expect them to worship and adore me for doing what I do. I depend on our suppliers and most if not all of them bend over backwards to help us even when we forget to plan ahead. I am related to all of my neighbors. If I have a problem with them, this sure isn’t the place for me to say it.

I see a lot of folks using Facebook or other social media as a place to complain loudly. I hear co-workers constantly complaining about X, Y or Z. The radio constantly harps about those derned Demopublicans. Enough!

Instead, let’s look at the pretty cows. Let’s make some hay. Let’s discuss books to help us grow as people. Let’s treasure those we love!

Kids

So that’s what I try to do…all while keeping it real…but from a “glass is half full” perspective. I am not a victim. I am responsible for my own mistakes. And I make plenty of mistakes. When I go on the attack, I go on the attack to correct problems here at home. Problems I have created or enabled.

The original incarnation of this post was, according to Julie, “…very real. Very raw.” I want to tread carefully here. I am only so willing to expose my own failures publicly…but that’s kind of the point of the post. Some of our failures just hurt too badly to discuss. I am not interested in bleeding in front of you but I think I can help you by telling you about a few old wounds. There is no teacher like failure and there is plenty of failure to go around on this side of the fence. There is no need to be critical of others. I don’t even have time to time to be critical of others.

I make it a real point not to attack other farmers on my blog. I may use other farms to illustrate points but I work hard not to do so in a negative way. Confinement and monocrop agriculture are the current reality. That’s how it’s done right now. That’s how we attempt to “feed the world”. I could use this platform to preach against acres and acres of apple trees but…well, who does that help? In general, the kind of people who bother to read this are already in the choir and the people who put in 3,000 acres of corn don’t read this blog. And all of us like to eat rice and beans…which are grown in big, monoculture fields…the very kind I would be complaining about. Besides, nobody wants to grow commodities anymore, there’s too much competition (sorry Yogi).

I don’t worry about other people. Instead I tend to be introspective. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Why did I bother to get out of bed this morning? How well am I really accomplishing my goals? What did I screw up today?

I need to ship several cows that didn’t breed last year and a heifer that’s just a poor do-er. I torture myself will all kinds of questions about those girls night and day. Are they too thin? Do I move them enough? Give them enough pasture? Will the meat be tough? Will those customers return or will they hate me? (Please don’t hate me Chera!) Am I contributing to the bad name grass-fed meat has gotten? Did they fail to breed because of my management? Is the white heifer a poor do-er because of something I did? Would she be healthy if Steve had raised her? Yes. Then again, Steve loses calves sometimes.

WhiteHeifer

Hot weather is more of a problem for us than cold weather. We had some real problems on triple-digit days with layers and heat stroke a few years ago. We have had trouble keeping cool water available to pigs on pasture. We have cattle like the white calf above that did not shed out and would die if left in the full sun of a summer day. These were hard lessons we had to learn…and the education, at times, came at a high cost. There has never been a how-to book written about my farm.

Pigs

We have had freezers fail. We have also failed our freezers. We lost I don’t know how many pounds of meat when we didn’t completely close an upright freezer last summer. Not only did the meat thaw, it defrosted and drained onto the floor. Yuk.

This past spring we moved 150 Silver Laced Wyandotte pullets to chicken tractors. Good looking birds. They were in tractors for two weeks before it cooled off considerably and rained 4 inches. I didn’t even check the birds in the morning. They were on top of a hill, hadn’t been eating all the food we had been setting out, the birds were big and healthy and I couldn’t imagine them having a problem with the rain. I was busy that whole day and didn’t get there till the afternoon when I found 50 dead birds just laying there, drowned by a rainstorm or smothered by their peers and unloved by their farmer.

What about the three SLW pullets that were given to me by a little girl? She found out she couldn’t keep them in town and asked us to take care of them. A raccoon got under our fence and ate two of them one night. Dad and I took turns camping out in the field to catch the masked bandit but we never even saw him.

I have mountains of junk I need to get rid of. Old, broken barbed wire wrapped around posts, weeds out of control and trees I would rather you not see. I cut more firewood last winter than I could stack and some of it is still laying out where I cut it. There are tree tops around and in the way waiting to be burned or chipped. A tree at the yellow house fell down several years ago and guess what? Big chunks of it are still in the yard. We just work around it.

I don’t have to look across the fence to see failure. It’s right here at home. I don’t have to alienate my neighbors or prove my superiority to my readership. I would be a fraud and a liar. I am the worst farmer I know. So that’s what I work to correct. Every day. I hope I can spare the reader from making some of my mistakes. How silly would it be for me to point my camera across the fence or down the road at that other guy?

I don’t have time to hunt down the injustices of the world. I have to do better here at home.

I can’t waste time preaching about my dream of utopia. I just have to create it…even though I will make mistakes along the way.

First You Cut the Hay

Well, first you check the forecast to see if it’s going to rain. Then you pray the forecast is right. Then you cut the hay. Then you wait (and pray some more). Then you rake the hay, twiddle your thumbs while it dries and you bale it all up and haul it to the barn. And it better not rain or else. If you have done everything right your livestock will eat well and the barn won’t burn down.

So let’s go through that more slowly. In four-part harmony. With feeling. This may not apply where you live. Find a local mentor.

We cut hay to the east of the farm over my lunch hour one Tuesday (as we usually do). It’s better to wait till later in the day so the brix in the forage is high. Dad had me take my chainsaw to cut tree sprouts so they wouldn’t damage the hay conditioner so I was too busy to take any pictures. Imagine a machine with an array of cutter teeth cutting through the grass about 2″ high and feeding it through a crimper. The crimped grass dries out more quickly then is left laying in a wide row behind the cutter. Swallows usually follow the tractor to grab the bugs as they fly out of the grass around the mower. You down? We leave that laying for a day or three until it is dry enough to turn.

RakingHay

Dad likes to rake the grass hay into full-on double windrows (Whoa! Double Windrows! What does it mean?). By turning it we expose the grass that was on the ground that may not be quite dry yet. Dad makes double windrows so he can bale more slowly and have more room in the field. Maybe there are other reasons. We really don’t talk about it. In some cases the windrow is too wide for the baler so I usually keep a pitchfork with me as he bales to scoop up hay that was missed.

DoubleWindrows

We are always in a bit of a pinch on baling day (in this case, after work on Thursday). We have to wait for the dew to dry off of the hay before we can rake. I spend a little time digging through the windrows looking for wet spots as dad rakes. I also think it is interesting to look at the variety of forages. We raked up some thick stems, some thorny things, you can see brown, leafy clovers, grasses, some goldenrod, once in a while a little plantain…it’s all here. That variety will be a good thing in the winter but it’s hard to dry out the thick stems without damaging the finer hay.

WindrowCloseUp

Then we have to wait for that (now) top layer to be completely dried out before we can bale it. But we have to bale it before the evening dew comes on. We have to get the bales up before they soak up moisture in the evening. There isn’t much standing around once we start and we have to be careful not to cut too much at once. This time we cut about an acre and a half. That’s enough for us. We have a 9-acre field to cut later in the summer. We’ll spread that out over several sessions when the weather looks right.

BalingHay

Dad ties in with the baler around 4:00. He made heavy bales the first pass as the hay was thicker than we had expected. After a bale broke he backed off the bale tension and cruised through the rest of the field. Sometimes bales just break (as did two others) but that can just be because of a weakness in the twine. The first bale that broke was a monster. Just a monster! We either feed the broken bales back through the baler or I just scoop them up later with a pitchfork and a trailer.

BaledHay

As dad bales I follow him around the field scraping up hay that the baler missed and adding it to the next windrow. My oldest son and I also try to double up the bales so we don’t have to travel so far when we come back later to pick them up. We could stack the bales right off of the baler but that makes me sneeze…lots of dust. Instead, we pulled two wagons behind the tractor. I alternated putting the bales on each wagon and the boy and the wife stacked. I suspect Julie will drive next time and dad will stack. Some of the bales were pretty heavy. It was pretty good hay.

Stacking

I was expecting to get 80 bales from this field. We ended up with 166. I didn’t have enough wagons for that much hay and we had to drive up and down a steep valley that prevented us from stacking high. We had to take two wagon loads to the barn so we could continue. Again, we had to get the hay off of the ground or the bales would absorb moisture. We are almost finished in the picture above and I’m breathing hard between bales. You can see how much time has passed by looking at the sun in the last two pictures. It is always a long, hard, hot day but it is so nice to smell that little dose of summer when you go to the barn in February.

Just a couple of additional thoughts:

  • We normally plan to put up grass hay on Memorial Day, July 4 and Labor day but this year has been late because of all the rain. Alfalfa is on a slightly more frequent schedule.
  • I am cutting hay in my pastures because I don’t have enough cattle to eat it all. I also don’t have enough cattle to eat all of the hay we are putting up. I hate to sell hay but…
  • I like to spread at least one load of composted manure on the field for each wagon load of hay we remove. Usually it is a mix of brooder litter, pig bedding, horse manure, cow manure and whatever else I can scrape up topped off with a layer of crushed limestone…all loaded by hand with help from that strong young lad in the picture above.
  • A neighbor was killed this weekend putting up hay. Be safe. I try not to cut hay on the slopes but there are any number of dangerous things I do in the field that I shouldn’t (walking between moving wagons or dismounting a moving tractor on a flat field). Dad and I have agreed to focus on safety moving forward.

Moving the Cows to Fresh Pasture

A reader recently asked if it’s a big deal to move the cows. Not really.

The cows were grazing along a fence line I have been working to clear on the southern edge of the property. From there I needed to move them back to the center of the property. We set up a temporary lane and walked them to the next spot. Julie led the herd and I followed to encourage the stragglers. Nobody yelled. Nobody got their blood pressure up. No big deal. It doesn’t matter that the calves squirt under the wire. They won’t leave mama. Everybody knows the routine. We are all well trained.

In this video they walk up the lane to the barnyard. We held them in the barnyard for a short time while we tore down and rebuilt fence. I had almost a mile of fence to tear down so it took a little while.

I had a similar situation Saturday morning when a calf knocked down a fence that wasn’t powered. The herd was scattered across a couple of acres. Once again, I just walked behind them zigging and zagging like a border collie, maybe a pat or two on the rump, and they went where they were supposed to. (then I powered the fence.) The dairy cows got out later on the same day. Different fence, not powered. So we really fixed the fence…all of the fence. At least moving them from A to B went well.

I enjoy working with my cattle…less so with other people’s cattle. I really should break down and buy a Bud Williams DVD. I know I need to get better.

Happily Ever After? After What?

Oh Julie! It’s just like we imagined! Today marks 17 years of joy! I am married to a beautiful woman with superior genetic potential who passed her best traits to our offspring! You are married to a man who is smart enough to get a decent job and dumb enough to go to it every day. It’s perfect!

Hands

Remember when we were first discussing marriage? I must have been 18 at the time…so wise! So ready for life! And you, just a year younger and going to college with me. We wore matching Carhartt jackets. How sweet! We looked at rings and we set a date and we bought some major appliances and then before you knew it we were all married and stuff. And that’s when the magic is supposed to happen. The magic. The wedded bliss. Happiness forever! Remember that honeymoon we didn’t go on because we were flat broke? Remember stretching a $5 bucket of fried chicken for a whole week with a little help from Ramen? Remember when we couldn’t even afford the Ramen and that homeless guy heard us arguing in Aldi and bought us a package of sausages with his food stamps? Remember telling that story to Joe and Peggy who then showed up at our house with a box of groceries so we could eat? (That was the last time we had cream of wheat in our house.) Remember the fights? Remember the time you were so angry you punched the refrigerator? Remember when I worked as a janitor at night while still a full-time student and I didn’t sleep for days at a time (and I had to re-take Microbiology with Dr. Singh)? Remember when we were both so sick we couldn’t get out of bed for about a week in that house we rented with the rotten kitchen floor and the broken sewer pipe in the basement? That was exactly the picture I had in mind when you said, “I do”…and that was just the first year! Happily ever after!

You are still the girl of my dreams but it’s not always dreamy is it? You know, that odd day when the sink is full of dishes and there is nothing to eat and I notice only too late that we have run out of toilet paper. Those days I might wish the ever after was a little different. But that’s part of the deal. Part of living with another human.

And here we are. We still don’t have enough money. We still get sick every year. We still fight. We still go short on sleep. There seems to be enough food though (especially eggs). I’m ready for some richer…some better…some health. But I remain by your side. I love you. I love only you. This is so much harder than we thought it would be when we were kids but I’m glad I’m facing it with you. We don’t always agree but I know we are on the same team. Side by side. Equal partners. Friends.

I know 17 is not a big number but it is a big deal to me. I love you Julie boo.

Day 6,208 (Not that I’m Counting)

A couple of years ago I included a Heinlein quote in a post and a reader joked that she would like to see me write a sonnet. OK. I’ll give it a whack. But first let me tell you why I would write a lame sonnet and actually publish it on my farm blog. Because farming is hard. And I would rather have Julie than land. Better or worse, till death…my real mortgage is to Julie. I can easily get out from under my farm debt without dying. I probably wouldn’t even have to put up a sign. The reader should know that this post was originally written some months ago. Julie asked me not to publish it at that time as the wounds were still fresh. Our Seventeenth anniversary is tomorrow so I thought I would sneak this in today.

Angry

Maybe this has taken me more than 6,200 days to learn. Maybe I am just relearning this lesson over and over. I don’t know. But I’m writing it down today. Julie is my team mate. There are times she will take me for granted or forget to be courteous to me. There may be days she just doesn’t have time for me. But we are a team. We are united by a common goal…a vision. Not division. One, not two.

We have had some long days. Long. Days. Early starts, bit of housework till the sun rises, pack eggs if time allows, get bug bites while opening nest boxes and doing morning chores, then run in for a quick shower and change and it’s off to the office. Sometimes the office really takes it out of me. But it doesn’t matter to the animals. There is work to do when I get home. So I change into farm clothes and go out to build fence or cut wood or whatever chore is seasonally appropriate, coming in only when the sunlight fails. Sometimes there is no supper left for me. Sometimes there is a stack of dishes in the sink and a stack of books on the couch and Legos on the floor. I don’t know why but sometimes…on certain days…in certain moods I take the mess in the house personally. As if Julie is saying, “I know you don’t like this. I don’t want you here” when she’s really saying, “Holy Crap! I’m busy too!”

But the enemy comes to steal, kill and destroy. He wants us to feel isolated and alone. To be separated from our emotional support. Away from the immediacy of emotion I realize it would be so easy to just change my perspective slightly…to realize that I do half of the housework and I’ve been too busy to do it…so my half hasn’t gotten done. She has been too busy to pick up my slack. It’s not’s that she has been goofing off on Facebook and eating M&Ms. She has been working on the computer, occasionally checking Facebook and eating M&Ms. That’s totally different. (lol)

But let’s say she takes a week off, refuses to water the cows and demands to sell the farm. Then what? Do I buy her a little place in town and split the sheets? Do I keep her in her little house in town and visit her on Sundays? Nope. If she says “sell” we sell. If she says “move” we move. I love her. I choose her. For better or for worse. In sickness and in health. In farm or in town. Till death do we part.

She married a boy hoping I would someday become a man. I married a girl seeing the woman she would become. For 6,208 days we have changed each other and changed together. Sometimes I resist resent the change…and she does too. Marriage in real life looks nothing like I remember reading in the brochure. (Our old pastor was pretty honest with us about marriage emphasizing our need for continuing and balanced spiritual, emotional and physical development. Physical ran way out in front for a long time. 4 kids…)

I have painted a pretty bleak picture here…but there are bleak seasons. Julie and I are emerging from one right now and that’s just part of the deal. Our pastor says we are always in one of three states: Entering a storm, enduring a storm or emerging from a storm. I think that lines up with the idea of a refiner’s fire or a pottery wheel. I am still being made. Still being refined. Still becoming. And sometimes it really hurts.

But look at what we have become. Just stop for a second and look Julie! Holy cow. We still have the whole rest of the mountain to climb but let’s just pause for a second. Wow. Look how far we have gone. There were ups and downs. The views are great from the high points but the fruit is grown in the valleys. I know we have a long way to go but in just 6,208 days we have gotten here! I love you! Thank you for growing with me. I would not be here without you and I can’t go on alone. I need you and I mean specifically YOU. I meant it when I said “Better or worse”. The worse has been pretty bad but the better is pretty awesome. The season is changing. Due season is arriving! I love you. All that other stuff…it is behind us. We are here now. No baggage. This is us. We are here. We choose to go there. Together.

So I wrote 12 lines outlining the problem and two lines of resolution in iambic pentameter choosing the Shakespearean style. I mean, that’s obviously what people do, right? This both summarizes the issue and knocks something off of my to-do list. When it doubt, speak like Yoda you must.

I stood before the Lord and said my vow.
Since childhood through ups and downs we share.
But Heaven open up and hear me now,
For worse has got the better of my care.

Where is the joy, the love or passion’s cure?
Naive was I to think we could succeed?
My younger self believed to be so sure.
Today I stand perplexed on what you need.

Misunderstanding. Time alone. Regret.
Days spent nursing a hurt or simple slight.
Neglected. Love from times we soon forget.
Why won’t the other person make it right?

Today I choose to love my wife once more
As also she my failures must ignore.

OK. Let’s see how we measure up to ol’ Heinlein’s list today.

  • change a diaper - No problem.
  • plan an invasion – an invasion? Of what? Of local markets with fresh farm products? Check.
  • butcher a hog - Give me a break.
  • conn a ship – Do what?
  • design a building - Let’s design and build a house.
  • write a sonnet – Maybe not a good one but…Check.
  • balance accounts - Check.
  • build a wall - Check.
  • set a bone - Check. (Did it. My own broken arm.)
  • comfort the dying - Check.
  • take orders - Check.
  • give orders - Check.
  • cooperate - Check.
  • act alone - Check.
  • solve equations - Check.
  • analyze a new problem - Check.
  • pitch manure - Check.
  • program a computer – Check.
  • cook a tasty meal – Check.
  • fight efficiently – I guess so. Not much of a fighter but I understand the mechanics and am in reasonable condition.
  • die gallantly – Not really interested in dying. Hope it goes well.

Pasture Acne…er…Transition, Healing and the Return to Health

Have you ever tried a new shampoo and had your face break out? I have. For Pete’s sake I’m 37 years old. Can I stop having pimples now? Please?

Actually it’s worse than that. Have you ever switched from using shampoo to…to not using shampoo? Have you ever gone pooless? Some people have to go through a period of…adjustment. Your hair may be greasy for a little while. I used to use shampoo almost every day and my body compensated by producing an excess of oil to replace what I was stripping out. It took a while for that to level out. I also had to learn how to use the baking soda and vinegar, in what proportions and how often (not very often). It was both an adjustment of the environment/terrain and an adjustment in management. If I didn’t get all of the baking soda out I had this crazy Zach Morris ’90′s hair almost parted, almost spiked. (If you don’t know who Zach Morris is…go to the Google. The show was cool in its time but is totally unwatchable now.)

Same with food. It is not uncommon for people to try real food for the first time and have …well…a biological response. It’s amazing how well sauerkraut can clean out some people’s pipes…let alone dairy. If your internal biological terrain is engineered exclusively for Twinkies, double cheeseburgers and Coke, it may not know what to do with yogurt. Cut the caffeine and sugar out of your diet and see how your body reacts. If you are normal, your body will DEMAND caffeine and sugar by making your head hurt. The more disciplined of you may find yourselves divorced. Good luck.

If I leave an open area of my farm unmanaged for a length of time what happens? The grasses begin to surrender ground to pioneer species. Raspberry seeds will be carried in by birds and thorny canes will rise up as tall, stale, oxidized grass shades out new grass beneath. Same with honey locust pods. Squirrels will bury acorns and hickory nuts and trees will begin fighting each other for dominance. In a few short decades we’ll see a transition from grassland to forest.

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It really is the same thing in the hay fields. A monoculture won’t last. We have an alfalfa field that is speckled with weeds and grasses. Most folks spray their fields to stop the advance of “evil” but I tend to be pretty chill about it. The first step in recovering health (diversity) in my alfalfa field is the emergence of grasses. Why do I want an alfalfa field anyway? What do those new plants mean? Do they mean my hay will have less value on the market? Why am I selling hay? Do the grasses mean alfalfa weevil will have a hard time? Good. Does the grass mean my cows are less likely to bloat while grazing? Good. Does it mean we are putting roots in a variety of zones in the soil, building organic material and fertility over time? Good.

Our pastures are changing quickly. Plants are emerging that have not had the opportunity in …well, maybe in decades. It’s a mess out there; cow poop, matted, brown grass, muddy areas where the waterer sat for a day, flies. And that’s the good stuff. I have so many acres and so few cattle I’m having trouble grazing everything. Steve says I just need to speed up grazing and clip behind them. Ugh. The open, sunny areas where the cows can’t get shade are on hold until fall. Most of those areas have gotten little manure over the years. One in particular is a compacted mess as it was the travel path to and from the barn for years after it was the breeding pasture for the swine herd. You would not believe the weeds in there. While I see the weeds as a reparative mechanism (not the problem itself) I’m going to mow before those weeds set seed, allowing the biomass to accumulate as mulch for the layers to scratch through. Maybe I shouldn’t (Grandpa Tom said it costs $100 every time you mow) but I just can’t bear to see the mess…even if the mess exists to heal the landscape. I can manage for grass and eliminate thistles. I can manage for legumes and win the battle against ragweed (which makes the milk taste a little sweet, a little…I don’t know…like I remember of the milk that remains at the bottom of your Rice Krispies. Genus Ambrosia…which, as we remember from Greek mythology, makes one immortal).  After cutting the trees I’m going to mow to hit the reset button and allow other forage species an opportunity to grow free from the shade of 7′ tall ragweed plants. I could certainly let it run its course then allow the cows to trample it in the fall but…well…it ain’t pretty. Any way you slice it. So I’ll try to use the brush hog without spending $100 (Update: Fail!).

WeedyMess1

In the shady places the cows are eating poison ivy, ragweed and plantain. They are trampling the goldenrod. Those places have looked ugly for decades but things are looking up. The cows are making improvements. They even found a hawthorn grove I didn’t know I had. I had never been able to penetrate the poison ivy to see in there…even in winter.

WeedyMess2

The cows are doing great but I don’t have enough of them. Even if I did we would have to go through a transition period. There are huge portions of the farm that may not look that great for a while. I once knew a woman whose 3rd molar roots had grown into her sinuses. She had the wisdom teeth removed and her sinuses drained for the better part of a week. She just sat with her face hanging over a trash can. Sounds gross but she is undoubtedly better off. It just required a few days of ugly adjustment as she returned to health. Do I want pretty pastures or do I want healthy pastures? Healthy microbes lead to healthy worms. Healthy worms, healthy pastures. Healthy pastures, healthy cows. Healthy cows, healthy people.

Pasture acne is part of the return to health. Things are changing for the better…even if it looks worse for a little bit. I could sustain and mask the lack of health with a bottle of chemical but…let’s not. Let’s move forward, away from monoculture. Away from “hay” fields and toward health.

Above Average on Purpose

I originally wrote this post in September of 2012 but it got lost in the shuffle and I never published it. I also wrote another, similar post (short attention span) but I feel this one covers it from a different angle. As I re-read now I am concerned that I come across as arrogant. That is not my intention. Julie and I have a wonderful thing going on here. We had a wonderful thing going in town too. Just lucky? I don’t think so. I think we have made a series of choices that benefit our family and our goal in this post is to encourage you to evaluate your own choices. Oh, and I may just be fooling myself. If so, let me be.

SO, Mr. Steward. You say it’s all work. Work, work, work. You wrote a whole post last year complaining about the workload from a “glass is half empty” perspective…as if to warn others to avoid farming at all costs. So, why do you do it? Why bother?

Good question! We live in a world of scarcity.  At some point I’ll run out of pizza and coke within arms reach of the couch.  Then I’ll have to do work.  I’ll have to get off of the couch and either call someone to bring more pizza to me (work) or open the freezer, pre-heat the oven, unwrap the pizza (ugh!  More work!).

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Either way, I have to wait 20 minutes and it costs me money. And that money has to come from somewhere. I had a “managing director” tell me once, “Just because you’ve still got checks in the checkbook doesn’t mean there’s any money in there.” (That was his way of saying I should be happy I wasn’t getting a raise. (I was not.(He may have been implying that the company was broke and I should start looking…(I did)))). So now, unless I have a generous benefactor, I have to go get a job to make money to buy pizza so I can sit on the couch and enjoy life. All this because pizza and coke are scarce. Well, everything is scarce. How do you choose to solve the problem of scarcity while maintaining a high quality of life? I do it by working my tail off…you know, cause it works.

I’m going to share some measurable things about myself and some that would be difficult to measure. Then bring it around to the point. You’ll understand more as you read.

My life is above average. I’m really rather ordinary but my life is above the norm. I’m above-average height, average intelligence, average-looks (maybe even below average) but I married well and am truly blessed and can grow a fantastic beard.

Christmas

Beyond the blessings I have made lifestyle decisions that have pushed me into the above-average category in a number of places.  This could still be true if I lived in the suburbs but somehow I wouldn’t be “me” – the way I am “me” here – if that makes any sense at all. The farm makes me “me”.

Among any group of 37 year old American men my health is above average.  I work harder than the average person and expect, in time, to be wealthier than the average person. My waistline is below average…which is good. I am stronger than average. I read far more than average across a broader than average range of subjects. I believe, based on experience, I can run 1/4 of a mile up a hill faster than average while carrying a dead 150 pound hog on my shoulder on a hot day in July or while carrying a live, struggling calf in October. These are objectively measurable things. But there are subjective things too. My happiness appears to be above average…at least above the average I have experienced and seen in others in my first 37 years (this may be measurable by the distinct lack of anti-depressants). I have more direction and purpose in life than average as a survey of my generation – many of whom seem to be sailing without a rudder. I think I’m more “me” than the average 37 year old guy is “he”.

This isn’t all a result of me living on the farm, though the farm functions as an outlet for me. It’s a result of living with purpose for most of my adult life. I haven’t begun to describe myself, just specific attributes that will help make my point. But what is the point? How is this applicable to you?

I’m not going to suggest that you sell your beautiful suburban home, move to the stix, home school your kids and start farming. Well, OK, I do suggest that but I admit it won’t work for a everybody. Well, it should be for everybody but it takes some convincing. Well, it takes a lot of convincing. So I’m not going to try to convince you in this post but I am going to get to a point in the next paragraph or two.

Behind your eyes is a person. The person back there lives inside a strange shell. The shell is not you. The “you” is inside…not outside. This becomes more noticeable as you age. “You” don’t age. The shell does. You may feel trapped in that aging shell. You may not know what you are doing in there…wondering why you can’t do cartwheels anymore. You may just be walking around daily following a set pattern for reasons that are not fully understood. Break that pattern. Begin by understanding your pattern.

Why did you get out of bed this morning? No really. Why? What was the point? What did it accomplish? Were you just going through the motions necessary to acquire more pizza and coke? I hope you are happy with your answer. If you are not, work to improve your answer. Find your purpose. Purpose! Do you watch TV when you get home at night? Is that what you want to do? What else could you have done with that time? What have you put off for years because you just can’t find the time? Is “Watching more TV” on your bucket list? What did you eat today? Why did you eat it? What happens if you ditch work today? Can you make plans to take some time off? Are you so enslaved by debt and lifestyle choices that you can’t? Is college so important that you should borrow $100k to attend? What does it cost you to work? Can you really afford for both spouses to work full-time? Will you ever be able to retire? What will you do with your time when you retire? Will your marriage survive retirement? There is a question living in the shell with you…nagging at you daily. What happens when you uncork your ears, listen the question and answer it honestly? Are you strong enough to do that?

Jeremiah 29:11 says I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you.

What’s the plan?

I had a plan when I got out of bed this morning (I promise this will still be true even as you read this years later!). Did you have a plan? Find your plan. You could begin with a book like Sink Reflections. Fly Lady outlines a positive routine that may just get you in a pattern of accomplishment no matter where you are. That initial accomplishment (a shiny sink) may build the foundation for real purpose instead of just coasting. There is more to life than pizza and coke…more than Candy Crush and the latest episode of that popular reality show you talk about with the other people who are chasing pizza and coke. Go find it!

If we all do this we’ll raise the average. Then I could be more normal…ish. Maybe.