Jacques, Julie and Joie de Vivre

February 6, 2016

Pere Marquette State Park

The locals say something that sounds more like Pierre Marquette. In fact, for years that’s just what I thought it was. A park for a French explorer named Pierre. Pere is not in our lexicon. Which is a little odd. The French were here at least until 1763 and left their mark on the landscape. James Fenimore Cooper wrote a little about the real estate changing hands.

We live in Illinois. Spelled with a silent “S” at the end. I live in Illinois but work in St. Louis (you say the “S” on that noun…unless you are Judy Garland). Well, not St. Louis, down the street from Creve Coeur. Little towns dot the landscape named Prairie du Rocher or Portage de Sioux. We are just up river from the place Lewis and Clark camped before their big adventure. The place where the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers all meet.

Rivers.jpg

All these French labels surround us but to get here we drove through Jerseyville and McClusky. It’s all a big cultural mix up. The French were the first Europeans here….long after the Cahokians left. Some of the names the French gave stuck. But we don’t speak French. We don’t speak German either…but I grew up in New Minden. We don’t speak British either. It’s a big cultural mix-up.

Who was Pere Marquette? What is this place? Well, it turns out to have little to do with Pere Marquette. But that doesn’t matter. It’s a New Deal public works conservation area with a flashy name. Again, doesn’t matter. Marquette was here once, said “Hello” to the Illini people, boosted the morale of the troops stationed here then went to Michigan. It is a nice place to see bald eagles. There are cabins, there are rooms at the lodge. The pool is nice. The trails are challenging. The food is fried. The Wi-Fi is functional.

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Julie and I come here often. That should sufficiently describe how we feel about it.

We stayed here on our anniversary in July. We had to enter through the back roads because the river was covering the highway. We got an inch of rain every day in June and the river, normally a series of ribbons in the distance, was a solid mass of swirling, muddy water with the accompanying mosquitoes. At that time we stayed in a cabin. “Cabin” is a loose term. It was a stone building with a shake-shingle roof divided into three air-conditioned, comfortable living areas. One queen bed, two bunk beds. Perfect for the family seeking a weekend getaway. We decided one night was not enough.

This weekend we are staying at the lodge for two nights. This is more like a hotel room. The Wi-Fi is more reliable in the lodge than in the cabin but the cabin was more comfortable. But the rooms don’t matter. There is plenty to do outside.

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Or you can sit inside and edit pictures for Instagram. Please note the stack of books she is ignoring.

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The place is packed this weekend with some sort of mom retreat. 100 or so moms comparing stories from the trenches, laughing at children who throw fits and stop breathing and grateful to have a weekend away from diaper duty. Are the kids with husbands or parents or ??? Based on the enormity of the diamonds on display I would suggest there are husbands somewhere. I wonder how they are holding up.

How am I holding up? We are years past diapers. But for 10 days out of every month our daughter is in the hospital. Julie is there with her. And I still have a job. And a farm. And three other children. And a marriage.

Julie and I found a break in the chemo schedule. It’s time for a checkup. This has little to do with missionaries sent by Louis XIV (Don’t say the “S”, the “X”, the “I” or the “V”), President Roosevelt, moms on retreat or children with life-threatening illness. The focus is simple. I love Julie. Julie loves me. But the busyness of our medical needs has prevented us from connecting. We are busy. Just busy. Busy all the time. And it is taking its toll.

Last night, in spite of the sound of free mothers roaming the hallways, Julie and I went to bed early. The we slept in a little. We ate breakfast at the little restaurant then took a long hike on the trails. The walk gave us time to talk. What are we each doing? What are the kids doing? What can we do to better meet their needs? What are our short and long-term goals? Are we still aligned in our goals? Why is it so hard to get rid of stuff in our house?

This isn’t just a chance to relax and take a nap. It’s a chance to relax, take a nap and finish reading a book or two. And to talk to my friend Julie.

On a hike with my best friend.

A photo posted by Julie Ann Jordan (@20acreacademy) on

Because we really need some time.

Shadow selfie.

A photo posted by Julie Ann Jordan (@20acreacademy) on

Make sure you are making time.

And for those who wonder, “How does this fit on your farm blog?” I offer this answer.

There is no farm without Julie.

The Farming Manual: Farm Tools

TheFarmingManual

Henderson spends a lot of time in this chapter describing a world I have only read about. I realize the traditional tools used in York differ from those used in Cornwall but I may be in the minority of Americans who can point to York and Cornwall on a map…let alone understand that there are differences between racial or cultural subgroups living within Cornwall.

It is in the shovel that we see the racial choice most strongly marked, the so-called Devon or Welsh socket shovel is used wherever you find Celtic people, in Cornwall, Wales, the west of Ireland, up the west coast of Scotland, and of course in the Western Isles.

What a diverse world! It is all but gone in America’s Midwest. There are only a few tokens of my ancestry laying around the old farm house. Stories mostly along with a few food items and family values. But really, the whole thing has gone the way of the shovel. No real variety. The industrial age standardized the shovel into a horrible thing that breaks upon use. There is one design available at multiple price points in every hardware store in America.

This chapter describes the different tools in use by farmers from different counties. Changes depend on the size of the people in the county, the variety of plants available and just plain old user preference. It’s kind of amazing. Tools with enough variety to meet the needs of the farmer. Tools that farmer will use for his lifetime.

I can’t imagine. I recently bought a new hatchet. I didn’t need a new hatchet. I didn’t particularly want a new hatchet. Especially not the toy steel hatchet I bought. But I spent about 5 minutes looking at the grain of the handles in the store and found one with straight grain pointed in the right direction. I bought it. It is nearly impossible to find tool handles with the right grain orientation, let alone one that will hold an edge or is the right weight. I suppose that’s why there are so many of those horrible tools with fiberglass handles. Yuk.

So here I am, living in a world of stamped, pre-broken round point shovels and cross-grain handled axes and hatchets reading about a world of quality hand-made tools in large varieties. Different shovels for different soil types, scaled down for users under a certain weight (14 stone). I can’t imagine.

And it is probably my fault. I don’t want to pay $100 for a spade. I want to buy a $20 shovel and use it like a spade, then complain loudly on the internet when it breaks.

So where does that leave us?

I don’t know about you but I could do a better job of caring for my tools. I could take time to clean my unbroken shovel and wipe the blade with an oil rag. I could keep the edge sharp. I could rub a little linseed oil on the handles of my tools. I could do a better job of keeping them put away (following behind my children…). Even my horrible post-industrial tools would be better if I would care for them a little better.

But it can’t just stop there. There are tools I use regularly and for hours on end. And I’m not talking about my chainsaw. We butcher chickens with hand tools. My best knives were given to me by an elderly man. His father was a butcher. My new knives don’t compare to those old ones. I prefer a high-carbon steel blade to a stainless steel blade. By that I mean I prefer working to sharpening. And in this case, I can buy near replacements of my old tools cheaper than their modern, stainless alternatives.

So where does this chapter leave us?

It may be as simple as this: Make an honest evaluation of your land, your size, your strength, your ability and your preferences. What are your needs? Now, what tools best fit your needs? Maybe you do need that $100 spade to help you double-dig your garden beds. Or maybe you don’t need to double-dig your garden beds. Maybe you need to mound up layers and layers of compost instead. That’s a different job, requiring a different tool. One sized to fit your body mechanics. One that does not overextend your reach or overtax your strength. One that makes work easy. Fun even.

How much is that tool worth? How many junk shovels and sore backs do you want to buy? Can you do a better job of deploying your resources? I’m sure Mr. Henderson would say something about Scottish opinions on relative scarcity.

The Farming Manual: Studying Farm Work

TheFarmingManualThere is no limit to the work that needs to be done. Reducing the effort involved in one task means I am free to pursue another task…not that I will ever be out of work. Less time spent caring for cattle each year means more time sitting on the couch with my family reading books. Or more time throwing stuff away. Or more time reading books about throwing stuff away.

So how do we reduce the effort involved? It is more, Henderson suggests, than merely the application of common sense in an organized way.

…with livestock something more is involved than the dumping of a certain quantity of food in the right place at the correct time.

It is possible to devise dry-mash hoppers and automatic water troughs for pigs which only need attention once a week. By their adoption it might be possible to reduce the labour charge from 365 hours to sixty-five in the feeding of 365 pigs annually. But if the system permitted each pig to waste 2 oz. of food daily, either down its throat or on the floor, the saving would be entirely wiped out. Also if the man failed to notice a bunch of pigs which were off their food in time to isolate them and prevent an outbreak of disease it might be calamitous. On the other hand, if a little reorganization of the work did give him time in which to study the pigs no time could be better spent.

That is a much longer quote than I normally share and may be more than is fair to Henderson. I can’t reprint the book. However, that quote sums up what we need to discuss today…with this slight change. Henderson later says,

The ultimate test is not the time or mileage saved, it is the stock units which can be efficiently managed.

Well, yes. But no. The ultimate goal is not more animals. The ultimate goal is not more money. The ultimate goal would be more like safe and efficient management of animals we enjoy utilizing our land, earning us enough return that we can spend time with those we love most. Don’t get me wrong, I like money. But, given the choice, I would pick more time with Julie and the kids. And if I didn’t like the animals I wouldn’t have them.

And in achieving these goals we may find our infrastructure is not what we need. That our fixed, specialized buildings should be replaced with general-purpose, portable structures.

We are all too familiar with the ranges of brick and tile pig-sties of an earlier generation, which seem a sin to destroy, but are quite out-moded.

That applies directly to me. What can I do with my hog floor besides keep hogs there? And I really can’t keep hogs there efficiently. Not efficiently enough to make it worth doing. (Look for a post in the near future).

Julie and I waste a huge amount of time dragging and draining hoses to water stock. We should have spigots everywhere. Lighting everywhere. Solid roads everywhere. We put hay in the loft of one barn just to spend the winter throwing it down and hauling it to another barn to feed the cattle. What is the sense in that?

A careful analysis is then made on the basis of: Why is it necessary, Where should it be done? When should it be done? Who should do it? and What is the best way to do it?

I like square bales of hay. I hate loading them into the loft. How could I keep hay at the cattle barn? I could put a loft back in that barn but, again, I hate loading hay into the loft. What if I kept bales at ground level under a portion of the roof? The building is not set up for that. What would it take to correct the setup? How much easier would feeding the cattle be if we could carry a bale no more than 15 or 20 feet?

Henderson spends the rest of the chapter illustrating his efficient building design and farm layout, discussing the merits of his approach with an emphasis on designing routes for harvest equipment or manure delivery to any field. In an earlier book he says they try to haul 600 loads of manure and spread it across the entire farm.

I have a lot of manure to haul and I have a number of fields I can’t begin to hope to cover with manure from the barn.

While I may have given the reader the impression that we are a horribly inefficient operation and feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson the truth is we are a horribly inefficient operation and I feel a measure of conviction while reading Henderson. And, while I would love to tell you more about it, the sun is coming up and I have to take a bucket of water to the chickens in the greenhouse, walk to the cows and evaluate the remaining pasture, open the chicken house (next to the cows), give the chickens a half of a bucket of water from the cow’s trough, walk to the pigs (quite near the cows) carrying a bucket of water from the cow tank, feed the pigs, walk to the barn to feed the milk cow, drop a fresh bale for the calves in the calf pen across the way, stop at the grain bin for a bag of chicken feed that I will then carry on my shoulder 1/4 mile back to the greenhouse where I started.

Could that be better? Yes. But not a whole lot. Not on foot when the well is broken anyway.

But today the well gets fixed. And that will save all of us a lot of time.

The Farming Manual: The Mechanics of Labor

TheFarmingManual

Some years ago when I thought I was an athlete I made a day trip to Kansas City to visit Coach Rutt. Coach had several programs that utilized bodyweight and, otherwise, minimal equipment: pull-up bar, rings and sand. The “Rutman mile” was popular in CrossFit circles for a while (10 years ago) and it was simply this: Carry your bodyweight in sand for a mile in under 15 minutes.

I came close.

In this chapter Henderson discusses the capability of the human body, its often untapped potential and ways we limit our capacity by lack of training. What is possible?

…the very experienced stacker [of wheat sacks] …can carry at least three times his own weight without difficulty. The world record is 1 ton 18 cwt.

A sack of wheat, Henderson says, is 18 stone…252 pounds.

In the old days, the carrying of a sack of wheat up the granary stairs was the qualifying task by which a youth was entitled to consider himself a man.

Well, let’s see…39 years old, 175 pounds and can’t imagine carrying the equivalent of 5 feed sacks at once…not a man by that measure.

I struggled to carry a single hundredweight in my first week on the farm. I studied those who could, and within twelve months my master would set me to carry all the grain from the threshing machine in the standard four-bushel sacks, and which in the case of beans, peas or vetches would be 19 stone – in those days approaching two and a half times my own weight.

Most of the athletes who journaled their attempts at the Rutman mile (Kelly Moore comes to mind) found it almost impossible to lift the sandbag from the ground. Henderson suggests it is better if you receive the bag from a starting position around shoulder-height.

Think of an athlete preparing to perform a squat. Head up. Chest out. Core muscles tightened. Squeeze your cheeks. You lift the bar with your shoulders. These are things you will remember hearing from your coach. “Knees shoulder width.” Your coach will explain the physical motion and will correct your motion to prevent injury as you train for higher weight.

Let’s hear from Coach Henderson:

It is sometimes necessary to take a sack from a height from which it is not possible to take it across the shoulders, and in which case it must be carried down the back, and can be done in perfect safety providing the knees are close together and the stomach muscles are contracted before taking the weight. To have the legs wide apart and the body muscles slack is to court an injury either to the back or stomach.

Notice his emphasis on the core. Keep your back and stomach tight throughout the motion. Henderson is writing this chapter to train farm athletes. I have joked about CrossFarm many times. This is why. Farming for a high level of output is an athletic endeavor. Every morning is a foot race to feed, water and add bedding. Then there are other chores. Put up hay in time to shower and go to a social gathering, slaughter 300 chickens before customers arrive. Cut, split and stack that tree before the next storm arrives. These are very much similar to CrossFit’s idea of timed workouts. How much work can you perform safely in a given period of time? But instead of making metal go up and down we are making cows happy, customers happy or keeping the wood stove going.

But it all hinges on safety and technique…not just strength or size or weight.

Hi. My name is Chris. I am 39 years old. I am 6′ tall, weigh 175 and don’t have an ounce of fat on my body. I can easily deadlift 300 pounds. I commonly carry two feed sacks at once.

Let me introduce you to my lovely bride. She is not 39. She is 5’9″ and weighs significantly less than me. She couldn’t deadlift 300 pounds to save her life. She irritates an injury in her right shoulder if she even thinks about carrying a single feed sack or a half-filled bucket of water.

What is the difference between Julie and me? When dealing with a 50 pound sack our weight, height and age difference don’t enter the equation. Julie carries it incorrectly.

You may have balked when I said that but let me suggest you think again. Julie is under more muscular strain carrying a basket of wet towels to the clothesline than when she carries a feed sack on her shoulder. It’s not weight. It’s technique. Normally she carries the basket in front of her body, pushing her center of balance way out in front, leaning back to compensate. And you should weigh a basket of wet towels sometime. You might be surprised what you are doing to your back.

Julie carries a feed sack on her right shoulder. Every time. She leans way to her left. Every time.

I either carry a sack on each shoulder or I alternate the shoulder I carry the sack on.

But Henderson says this is incorrect. I should center the sack across both shoulders. Maybe that’s a way I can help Julie.

And I need to help Julie. I need to coach Julie and our children…training them to be farming athletes. And if you are concerned that Julie can’t keep up with me physically:

Manure loading is considered to be one of the heaviest jobs in farm work, but with a little study it is no more than a physical effort which can be enjoyed. During the war, farmers were warned that they should not expect land girls to load manure. With suitable training a woman can compete quite easily with a man of similar weight. Intelligent application, as any woman can demonstrate, can compete with brute force in nearly all farm work.

This is a chapter on coaching. Coaching body mechanics, coaching technique and coaching tool selection (shovels shovel, spades dig). Work can be fun. It is always work but it should never hurt. If you are hurt, focus on healing and while you heal up, try to analyze what caused your injury. Are you lifting or carrying incorrectly? Are you using the wrong tool? Do you sit with bad posture at your desk job for hours on end?

I have some room for improvement. How about you?

Temporary Fencing Tips

There are some subtle things I do when building temporary fence that make a huge difference. It’s the difference between having the cows where you want them or having the cows in the neighbor’s field. It’s the difference between a fence that shorts out and a fence that registers nearly 10,000 volts.

FenceTester

Keep in mind I’m talking temporary divisions, not permanent or seasonal perimeter fencing. The kind of fence you build each day to hold the cows that one day only. We typically make paddock subdivisions with a mix of pigtail posts and rebar posts. I use pigtails on the ends and rebar in the middle. I would prefer to have all pigtails but they are more expensive than rebar and money is an object. But you have to do it right to be successful. Let’s start with a common error I see in our fencing. I’ll exaggerate each of these to make the point obvious.

InsideInsulator

Do you see what is wrong? The tension on the string will pull the string out of the insulator. We are just one stray deer away from disaster. Disaster! Any small disturbance and the wire will pull free of the insulator, the fence will hit the ground and the cows will walk out. So we try to put the wire on the far side of the post like this:

BetterInsulator

This is more like it. But even this has flaws. Too much tension on the fence (possibly caused by deer or just overtightening) can twist the insulator and allow the wire to short against the metal post.

ShortInsulator

So the real right way to manage a sharp angle is to use a pigtail. The pigtail wraps entirely around the wire, holding it securely with no chance of a short. On top of that, pigtail posts have a foot that will lend stability to the corner. And they are flexible so when that tree branch falls on the fence the corner will give, hopefully preventing the wire from breaking.

PigtailPost

Which is just fine when you are dealing with single-wire temporary fencing. But you aren’t always using single-wire temporary fencing. Which is why you should build your temporary fence in straight lines whenever possible. However, pigtail posts are sized for cow noses, not pig noses and certainly not sheep noses.

Now, I have to share a caution about the pigtail post above. I have several that now short out. Here’s the deal. See that open end on the coated wire above? Water goes in there when it rains. Water expands when it freezes. Brittle plastic coating doesn’t take abuse. Split plastic coating gives the circuit a shortcut to ground. What a pain in the rear. Check your pigtails early and often.

Finally, at the end of the fence is the reel. We hang our reels from the perimeter fence when possible. Otherwise they hang from pigtails. But there is a right and a wrong way to do this too. The twist of the pigtail can either help or hurt us. You may not understand this by looking at pictures but the lean of the reel has either solid pressure against the pigtail or it will fall off in a slight breeze, shorting out your fence, allowing your cows to go for a field trip. This is right:

ReelSuccess

This is wrong:

ReelFail

And for Pete’s sake, make sure the reel is off to the side of the post, not allowing the wire to make contact with the post!

There is more. If your fence runs along a hill, the transition from slope to flat can be problematic for hooked insulators. You need both hooks to have a firm grasp of the wire as below:

FirmGrasp

But if I turn that same insulator around, putting the wire on the other side of the post only one hook has a secure hold on the wire:

WeakGrasp

These insulators are made with two hooks, not just one. You need to leverage both hooks. Otherwise, the cows will get out. Believe me. I have some experience with this.

One final tip: always carry a fence tester with you. Ours can turn off our fence remotely…bonus. It’s not enough to know that the fence snaps when shorted. You need to know if you are at the full 10,000 volts or just 5,000. If you don’t, the cows will get out.

Let me know in the comments below if you have any other fence building tips.

 

 

The Farming Manual: The Reason For The Work

TheFarmingManual

Preface
Chapter 1: Teaching Farm Work

Q: Why are we doing this?

A: Well, to make money. To pay our taxes and buy new shoes.

That, my friends, is not an inspiring answer.

Have I oversimplified the big picture? Did I make an assumption? I thought everybody knew. Henderson is laying out his class syllabus in this chapter but I was entirely struck by the big picture…and its implications. As we read chapter 1, Henderson shares a list of ways he evaluates potential employees. He watches to see if they are working and then says:

The ability to judge distance, detail and object, are very important factors which can make all the difference in mastering a craft.

I obviously want to focus today’s post on the object of the operation.

…can he explain the reason for the operation – which is to give every plant the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number which must be left to ensure an adequate yield from a given acreage.

My kids, I’m afraid, can not explain the object. In their minds we have cows because dad wants to have cows. While that is not entirely incorrect, there is more to it. We have a given amount of meadow. I can spend a huge amount of time keeping it mowed or I can mow it with cows. Cows, like any other mower, require maintenance. But they also reproduce themselves and taste great. So our object, using Henderson’s framework, is to give every cow the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. Where Henderson requires judgement of plant spacing, we require judgement of daily grazing allotment.

But that still doesn’t get to the heart of the matter because we could have a very nice house in town if we wanted. Instead we have a not very nice house way, way out of town. Way out of town. Like way out.

Why? And why cows and not sheep?

Maybe the question should be changed from “Why are we doing this” to “Why are we doing this?”

For a couple of reasons. First, cows make good economic use of our land. As long as we get rain and sunshine we will have grass. It’s pretty cheap and the cows like it. Add in a little bit of management and you win. The second reason is not about cows. It’s about us. It’s about who we are, deep down.

Our well went out at the barn two days ago. Right now we are hauling water from my house to the barn using the tractor. This is in no way an ideal situation and uses a lot of time. In the near future dad and I (or maybe just dad) will replace the well pump. It will be a cold winter day. Screws won’t turn, plastic will be brittle, old wiring will fail. But we will soon have it fixed. Then something else will break. That’s how it goes.

Will we break too? I hope not. I hope we are able to stand against the tyranny of our 40 year old infrastructure, becoming stronger and more resilient with each problem. Cue the fife and drum because we are part of a brotherhood of American farmers!

I guess, in a way, we have cows because I want to have cows. Because, like Oliver, I am not content to sit in my city apartment between sessions at my job. I want more! I want fresh air, hard work, strength, fitness along with cold toes and crushed fingernails! I don’t feel that these things make me more of a man than you. I don’t compare myself to you. I compare myself to me. I think these things make me more of me!

But I have gone astray. I’m reading a book, not delivering an Oliver speech.

Oliver is, I think, useful in discussing the book. If you are familiar, Oliver approached farming with books. His neighbors farmed because that’s what they had. They knew what they knew and did what they did, shaking their heads at Oliver’s “modern, scientific” farming. In the show, the two rarely got together and that, Henderson points out, is a mistake.

To acquire any skill expert demonstration and supervision is essential right from the start, and the object should be accuracy, correctness, ease of movement and then speed. All skills need time to be assimilated, and are the better for it. A few days of good training in one season will put you far ahead in the next year.

Rather than ask his neighbors, Oliver put his nose in books and leaflets. Only once in a great while did he bother to look elsewhere, usually to the clouds. Some years ago a real farmer friend set me straight on this very topic. I read a lot of books. A lot of books. But I had very little experience to back up my book learnin’. In conversation with Dave I could only contribute what I had read and I had read a book on any topic we could discuss. Now, Dave is a reader too. But Dave is a real farmer and at the time I was not. He pointed this distinction out. “I read a book! I read a book! I read a book! Well, Mr. Book, can you butcher a hog?”

Well, Dave, I read about it in a book. But it turns out that there isn’t a book on butchering that will teach you what you can learn from Dave in about 20 minutes. And, as Henderson pointed out above, that experience with Dave has percolated over the years. It gave me a solid foundation of learning upon which to build. That first pig was a slow process on a cold day. Now we go much faster.

Since the focus of this chapter is about teaching, not learning, I should point out some things about the way Dave taught me. Dave shot and stuck three pigs in succession then hung them from the loader bucket to bleed out. I watched (somewhat horrified). Three pigs. Dave worked on one, explaining what he was doing. Dave’s son worked on another, explaining nothing. The third pig was mine. I got a lot of help.

What a happy memory. It was so cold! We let the pigs hang overnight and packaged the meat in the morning. The kind of cold that makes your knuckles ache (Henderson has some advice about cold weather in this chapter too). But happy work with people we love.

A happy man is more an halfway to being healthy. Happiness is as good an indication of mental health, as a thermometer is of physical health. A happy worker has no worries, for he is far too busy to worry about problems which do not concern him directly. An unhappy worker magnifies his grievances, and their poisons settle in his muscles to add to his troubles.

Again, this is a chapter about teaching farm work. I suspect Henderson is including this detail in an effort to help you evaluate potential farm help. In a similar way, our pastor, when we were kids, told us to be sure to marry a happy person. And I found, during the lengthy interview process involving numerous candidates, Julie to be a happy person. So I hired her. And it seems to be working out pretty well. And we are, together (mostly Julie) teaching our children to be happy people…who will marry happy people.

We are nearing the end of the chapter and I guess it’s time for me to answer my own question. Why are we doing this?

The greatest service we can render anyone is to teach him to love his work, and to find in it contentment and happiness. … No farmer could spend time better than in devoting ten minutes a day, on his daily rounds, to stimulating each worker to the desire for knowledge by arousing his curiosity and interest in the things about him.

I seek to stimulate my children’s minds – and to engage my own – all while doing work we love surrounded by nature’s beauty. That is why we are doing this…which is to give every child the maximum opportunity for development in relation to the total number. It is important to remember this when the well pump breaks…or when other things go wrong.

My experience convinces me that very few boys, and even fewer girls, know their own ability. It is something you have to teach them. It surprises many of them, and with delight, to learn how capable they are. But they must be given carefully graduated responsibility at first to see they do not fall down on the job in the early stages. Later they may blame themselves bitterly for the things that go wrong, then we have to help and comfort.

Yeah. Well, maybe I won’t screw up my grandchildren. I have a lot to learn on this topic. Fortunately, I have a better resource than Oliver, Henderson or Dave at my disposal. I have my dad who tolerates my ridiculous notions. I hope the final quote for this chapter is soothing to him.

But how worthwhile it all is, to earn the friendship, the affection and the respect of the young. To have the privilege of listening to the younger generation telling us how they hope to put the world and farming right. Few will dispute it has often gone wrong. It is a tremendous thrill to share with youth their passionate desire to make the world a better place, both for themselves and those who will follow after them. They will not fail if they only pass on the message that work is something to be enjoyed, that work is good for you.

Henderson’s Farming Manual: Preface

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Ah, that old book smell. The smell of a book that has been gathering dust for decades. Dust in little balls across the top of pages. You scrape it off before you open the book, hearing the binding crack as you do…wondering if you are making a mistake waking this old book from its sleep…hoping the pages won’t crumble as you turn them.

This book is not one of those in part because it has been preserved chemically. Do you remember the smell of mimeograph paper? Libraries tend to use some sort of disinfectant or bug spray or something that smells like a mix of mimeograph and moth balls. Our friends at Frinton-On-Sea apparently love the stuff. I get a strong whiff with every turn of the page. Maybe a headache too.

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I would love to invite you to read this book with me but it’s a little hard to find. There are a few online libraries that offer it or you can find it on several online retailers. It isn’t cheap. I’m too embarrassed to remember what I paid for my copy but at the beginning of January, 2016 there is one on Amazon for $114.

In a way, I’m reviewing this for you to save you from a $114 mistake. On the other hand, I really don’t do book reviews. I share with you as books change me. Both of Mr. Henderson’s prior works are still working on me and I have high hopes for this book as well. This book may contain one idea that is well worth $114. If so, it is money well spent.

Henderson spells out his reasons for writing in the first paragraph of the preface:

I will try and explain the bare mechanics of the process [of farming]. Not in the sense of mechanized farming, but of the human machine on the land and its application to work.

He further justifies the work by lamenting the loss of labor on the farm saying work is being completed by children and elderly men. If you can find anybody to do the skilled work it is likely they are “an elderly man with his best years behind him.”

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Three generations of Jordan spent four hours shoveling manure prior to a heavy rainstorm at Christmas. Dad drove the loader tractor. I worked, directed and instructed as the children helped. Henderson laments in the preface that he sees young men driving the tractor while old men are doing the heavier work. So far so good. But then he lays it all  out.

Management also is passing into the hands of college-trained men who have no manual skill with which to instruct those who serve under them, and to inspire them with a joy in work which makes hours, wages and conditions of secondary importance to the pleasure and interest which may be found in the work.

The pleasure of shoveling manure. Yes, pleasure. I know exactly what he is talking about. Nobody wants to shovel manure for the sake of shoveling manure. When was the last time you jumped for joy that you could clean a litter box? But I want to keep livestock. I enjoy our livestock. And this is the price. I want happy, healthy, clean, dry livestock. This is the price. I shovel manure and bedding. I try to find efficient and effective ways to accomplish this work but I also try to just stand there in the barn and enjoy the cattle. I don’t look forward to completing the work. I look forward to having healthy livestock. See the difference?

The tragedy of it all is that given the skill, and the high output which comes from skill, agriculture is the happiest and pleasantest of all occupations, performed under conditions of fresh air and sunshine, and with proper direction and efficiency it should be possible to find in it a reward comparable with anything which can be earned in industry.

Well, now, Mr. Henderson. Things may have changed. Generally, I agree with what you are saying…hence the farm. But not entirely. I am in little danger of losing a limb at the office. There is little chance that an agitated co-worker will crush me at my desk as I sit in a squishy chair and air conditioning. But I have less chance of catching a communicable disease on the farm than I do in the office, a point you made earlier in the preface. There are no free lunches. But I do agree, generally, that farm work is pleasant and fulfilling. Database optimization is less so.

Farm work is something to be enjoyed…because it is creative. There is so much scope for initiative, pride and interest that we…never give up or think of retiring.

I agree. So does Gene Logsdon as he wrote in The Mother of All Arts. But I can say that of all of the jobs I have had since I left food service behind in my youth. Construction? Creative. Training? Creative. Server administration? Totally creative. And that’s a big part of what draws me into each of those and away from changing tires on tractor-trailers. I don’t do well with mundane and routine. I would die on an assembly line. Heck, I have a farm and a job that both leverage my creativity and still I blog as a creative outlet.

But he finishes the above paragraph by pointing out that it is soothing to perform farm tasks we have mastered when our soul is troubled. And I agree. Julie and I have been through some stuff this fall. There is something entirely therapeutic about getting up early and doing chores. Hello chickens. Hello pigs. Hello cows. Check water, check feed. Count heads. Look at eyes, ears and noses. That part is the same every day and those simple actions pulled us through some hard times. Though I enjoy my job in town I found the servers I work with to be unsympathetic and uninspiring on our bad days.

He finishes up by admitting that it is ambitious of him to attempt to teach farm work with a book. But even if he only accomplishes helping the reader find a starting point…

Julie’s right shoulder is always sore. Is she carrying a bucket incorrectly? Probably. A bale of hay? A sack of feed? Is this an issue of technique or just a lack of strength and conditioning? Maybe both. But I hope we gain some insights into how to address the issue by reading this book. I don’t mind rubbing my wife’s shoulders but I do mind a lifestyle that is damaging to her body.

And that is exactly the problem this book sets out to solve.

I hope you can find a way to read and discuss it with me. I’ll do my best to make it meaningful in case you can’t find a copy.

What Does 2016 Look Like?

What a difference a translation makes. Bear with me here. This is one of those posts presented without apology. We started 2015 with a  bang. And then September happened. I had big goals for the year, read a book a week, blog regularly, try to take over the world. I was unable to sustain the book reading pace once our daughter got ill. I find it is amazingly difficult to read in a hospital with the beeps and nurses and checking vitals and hoping we can find something she wants to eat today…

But now is not then. Now is now. And the requirements of today are not the requirements of yesterday. The vision of today is not the vision of yesterday. We are slightly closer to our destination. The path is more clear. In fact, this is a good time to stop and look. Are we going where we want to go? Have we gone astray? What’s the plan?

If you read Habakkuk 2:2 in NKJV it says:

Write the vision
And make it plain on tablets,
That he may run who reads it.

But if you read it in the Message translation it goes like this:

Write this.
    Write what you see.
Write it out in big block letters
    so that it can be read on the run.

So this is what we do. We write it out.

A year is about as far out as I can plan as confirmed by a book I am currently reading called Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. It is good to have some notion of what is beyond that…a destination maybe 5 generations out…but if you try to plan too many years ahead you trip over the stuff in front of you. Minor deviations cause major problems.

So vision for a year…keeping in mind that our year went swimmingly for the first 8 months then was entirely derailed. Well, our year went swimmingly for 3 months then my job changed and our year was changed radically. So maybe a year is too ambitious. But let’s plow ahead anyway.

 

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If things go as planned we should have 10 calves this year. That’s a lot of calves. In fact, it may be too many. It may be a 10 too many. Our goal for 2016 is not expansion, it is retrenchment. We need to do better. We need to be more efficient. I don’t need more cows. I need better cows. I need better fences and more access to water and improved pastures. I need to repair buildings and wiring and equipment.

Our goal is not growth. Our goal is to repair and replace our infrastructure. The South perimeter fence, the wells at both houses, the shed roof between the silo and the cattle barn…all things we need to repair. I will spare the reader the complete list but until these things are finished we are in a holding pattern.

But there is more. I can’t handle additional cattle until I remove about 18″ of manure from my barns to return to our pastures. Until I frost seed 5 pounds of red clover and one pound of white. Until I remove inner fencing that causes frustration, erosion and large weeds next to the clover field.

So that’s part of my to-do list. But this isn’t about the what. This is about the why. We need to make everything easier and better. Not bigger.

But some things have to grow. We have to continue experimentation. I have no idea which of my solutions will be accepted by the market. People seem to like our eggs. They seem to like cattle raised entirely on grass. How about non-GMO pork? You can’t sell non-GMO pork from piglets that were raised on GMO feed. You have to be non-GMO from farrow to finish. Can we farrow non-GMO piglets to sell as weaners?

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Dunno. Let’s find out.

People do seem to like our eggs. Heck, I like eggs too. But let’s talk about what I don’t like. I don’t like Silver-Laced Wyandottes. As a reader, Eumeaus, suggested SLW tend to be flighty and don’t lay well in winter. We still have about thirty 4-year old New Hampshires laying around a dozen eggs a day. Our hundred-or-so year old SLWs are laying 6. 2016 features the return of NH pullets to our farm. I suspect I’ll buy pullets rather than hatch eggs because I need 150 or 200 pullets. That would be 400 or 500 eggs. I don’t have that kind of capacity.

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Broilers. I don’t know. Usually we are first to market with our broilers. We get chicks on Valentine’s day and harvest them before buffalo gnats hatch. If you want a fresh bird for a beer can chicken on Memorial day we are your source. Then we shut down until August. But our daughter’s chemo treatments will last until April.

I think we will try. Maybe not hundreds of chicks. Maybe dozens of chicks. I think we will encourage our older children to completely own the operation. They can pay us to process birds with them. They can earn the money. This is, ultimately, the direction we want to go anyway and the oldest will turn 16 this year. It is time. But it is up to him. I will encourage him to spread his wings but I won’t push too hard. Maybe there will be no broilers this year.

Books and I are still good friends. I may be reading as many as six right now. I got a stack of books for Christmas along with gift cards from friends that were used for even more books. Stacks of books. I suspect we now have half of P.G. Wodehouse. I’ll try to return to journaling my reading so you can play the exciting home game. A notable book I did not journal this year was The Richest Man in Babylon. It won’t take you long to read and it is stuff you already know but it might enhance your own vision of 2016.

There is more. Much more. But these are the portions of our vision that seem appropriate to share with you. It is where we expect to go. Things happen but this helps us to focus. 2016 we rebuild infrastructure. In 2017 we take over the world. (And by “take over the world” I mean prepare to send a kid to college.)

Write out your vision. Write it out in big, bold letters so you can see it as you run past. Hang it on your fridge. Post it on your monitor. Make it the background on your phone. Record yourself saying it and listen to the recording. Your vision is your vision. You need to block out all the noise and focus regularly on it. You are going somewhere.

So get going.

The Cold December Rain

My apologies to GnR for the title.

Contrary to what you may have heard we have had rain in December in years past. During a previous el Niño some years ago my bee mentor took me to check and feed his hives on a warm January 1st. I got so stung up my fingers were swollen like bratwursts. I hardly react to bee stings anymore.

Sometimes it rains in December in Illinois. Sometimes it snows…though not very often. A White Christmas is a big deal.

I have precious little control over the weather as evidenced by the 6″ of rain we got last night, 4″ of which are in my basement as I type. But I do have control over where my livestock are when the cold rain hits.

How do you feel about cold rain? Would you like to have a picnic outside in the grass when it is 36 degrees and pouring rain out? Do you think the cows want to picnic outside under those conditions? Do you think the pasture wants cows on it during those conditions?

What about the pigs? Pigs love mud…don’t they? What about cold mud? What about cold mud they can’t escape?

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I have learned to make a few adjustments to our routines to help our livestock and our pastures do better. This was hard-won information. It cost me a couple of vet bills.

In short, plan for rain in December. Heck, plan for rain in February. And ice in April. Last year it rained an inch every day in June killing all of our alfalfa and most of the clover. The year before it didn’t rain in June at all. Weather happens. We just have to plan for and deal with it.

Let me pull back a little bit. I frequently reference Mr. Salatin in my blogs. I do this first because it is relevant and interesting. I also do this because my readers, generally, know who Mr. Salatin is and have read at least some of his work. Yesterday I was burying a pet in the pasture, standing in the rain on Christmas day. As I was digging where we bury our pets I worried I might find another animal long buried and thought, “Alas, poor Yorick I knew him, Horatio…” Shakespeare is commonly read by our culture…his work is part of the foundation of western society. Similarly, Mr. Salatin’s work is foundational to the current generation of alternative agriculture. This allows me to reference his example as I explain our own position.

We pasture our animals as Mr. Salatin does. We built chicken tractors and a dolly like he uses. We buy fence he uses. We market like he markets.

We work to avoid confining livestock following his lead.

Saying that requires clarification. Mr. Salatin confines his hogs, cattle and chickens. But that confinement is conditional and worthy of reflection. The cattle are, in appropriate weather, confined to fresh sections of grass daily. In winter things change. When his herds were smaller and he first started writing he would use barns and deep bedding for his herds. Things may be a little different now that he has more cattle but for the pattern is valid for our needs.

Please notice I said “pattern” there. It’s a pattern. He didn’t publish plans we could follow. He lives in Virginia. I live in Illinois. He is a genius. I am rather ordinary. But by looking at his pattern and attempting to apply it here at home I benefit.

My cattle were in the barn on deep bedding during the heavy rains, not on our pastures. It wouldn’t do for them to freeze in the cold and rain while covered in mud and manure. They are, instead, warm and dry and eating hay.

I have stockpiled pasture to last us for months but it goes beyond those few coming months. It goes into next summer. If I graze heavily over frozen ground in January and February, piling manure densely on pasture, the pasture will look GREAT in May. If I graze heavily over muddy ground in December my pasture will wash into the creek and the sod will need most of June (if not years) to recover…mostly as a weedy mess. So the cows are in the barn for now.

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This thinking is even more applicable to hogs. Pigs love wet wallows in hot weather. Wet isn’t a problem. Cold really isn’t a problem. But wet and cold kills. Further, pasture won’t recover quickly when abused in December. Mr. Salatin moves his pigs off of pasture and into hoop houses for the winter. I don’t have that kind of space or setup in my hoop house. I have a hog floor.

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But there is a difference. I am currently missing part of the pattern. Salatin’s pigs are dry and out of the mud but they do get to dig. There is a limit to how much digging they can do because there is, ultimately, concrete under the bedding pack. But they can dig. That is missing in my solution.

Right now my pigs have a foot or so of bedding in their covered sleeping area. Otherwise, they have a concrete pad that is open to the sky and sloped slightly downhill. Will this turn into a sheet of ice in the winter? I dunno. I have never kept so few hogs here in the winter.

But right now, in the cold of the late December rain, our pigs are warm, dry and happy with room to run. All this without being concerned about the health of my pastures.

I can do better. I know I can do better. I can fill the runs with sawdust if nothing else. Or used horse bedding. But I have them out of the mud. And that is better for pasture, pig and for pig farmer…even if only a first step.

But I will never have Polyface farm. I will never be Joel Salatin. I can quote him. I can use him as an example and I can adapt his patterns to my needs but I can’t copy him exactly. Nor should I.

Feel free to analyze, criticize and improve on what I do. That is, I think, why any of us write and share. Not to brag, to find better solutions. I can’t solve rainstorms in December but we can put our heads together to establish better patterns…patterns that better meet the needs of our land, labor and livestock.

With a Little Help

I stopped writing about a month ago for several reasons. The main reason is simple: We are busy. But there is more than just that. Some of it was just the way I felt. The way I feel.

I have written a series of weepy-feely posts and worry that I have been a little too open. Some of that was us dealing with anxiety and a feeling of loss.

I don’t know. But mostly it’s an issue of time.

Yesterday I spent nearly 5 hours shoveling manure. It was a lot of manure. A lot. Why did I spend 5 hours shoveling manure? For the same reason I haven’t blogged in over a month. I haven’t had time to do it.

Two years ago I began remodeling the bathroom for Julie. Merry Christmas 2013! A bathtub. A real bathtub. The kind you can take a bath in. A bath! When grandma built the addition and they installed a bathroom in the house, grandma just put in a shower basin. The kind you can’t take a bath in. Julie wanted to take a bath. So she got a bath tub. But that was 2013. It is now 2015. The bathtub is great, yes, but the rest of the bathroom…well, less so. Needs to be updated. To be brought out of 1967 and into the world of today. Goodbye wood paneling, hello drywall. Goodbye weird ’60’s copper hanging lamp thing, hello recessed LED lights.

But there is no time.

So the bathroom project sat. And waited. And life happened all around us.

I couldn’t get it done. So I asked for help.

We found a guy to finish the remodeling job. And thank God! I come home from work every day and the bathroom is a little closer to being finished.

I wasn’t shoveling manure yesterday all alone. My kids were there. My dad was there. The work was hard and took a lot of time but, with a little help, we got through it all.

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And that’s where we are with our little Friendy. We get a lot of help. Help comes out of the woodwork. It’s amazing. From people we know and love to people we have just met. Sometimes is it hard to say “Yes”. Humbling.

And in that same sense of humility we seek out chances to lend a helping hand wherever we are. Right now I have little to offer but maybe I can make a difference to another parent in the hospital just by listening. Or by saying “Hello”.

I don’t know.

But I know this. Moses couldn’t hold his arms up without help. The widow needed friendly neighbors from whom she could borrow jars. Simon carried the cross for Jesus.

We participate in the mundane part of any miracle. The mundane part for us is chemotherapy…something of a miracle in and of itself. But it’s just us borrowing jars to fill with oil. Once we have the jars, God brings the awesome.

The short list of things I am thankful for – things I consider miraculous – certainly include that we caught the tumor before it spread, that my little girl is doing so well and that we have some of the best doctors in the world available to us within an hour of home. But there is more.

I am thankful that so many people have loaned us their jars, held our arms up and helped us carry our burden.