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!).

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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.

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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.

The Alarm Clock

Once upon a recent Saturday…

bing-BiNg-BING! bing-BiNg-BING!

“Ugh. It can’t be 5 already.”

It isn’t. Julie’s phone decided to announce a 30 minute alert for her 5:00 appointment to get up, study her Bible and make breakfast. Good job Julie’s phone. Good job me for putting Julie’s phone next to the bed last night.

Please, God, let me fall asleep again.

I can’t.

My eyes are too bleary to focus on the tablet we use for an alarm clock. After several attempts I log into my account to disable the alarm for the day then I lay back on the bed.

I don’t feel like I used to feel after a day of work. It was just 150 bales yesterday and they are still on the wagons. Is this “old” or just “tired”?

The weather says it’s going to rain today. Hot too. OK. I need to come up with a plan. A list. Things to get done. Then I’ll get up.

I need to spread compost where we cut hay. Hay. I need to stack the hay in the barn before it gets hot. Ugh. It’s already hot. Maybe it’s still hot. Either way, it’s hot. I wonder how much hay I can stack before Julie goes to milk the cows at 6. We are behind on dishes and laundry. I wonder if I have any clean clothes to wear today. We have an outdoor wedding reception tonight too.

Julie is still asleep. I don’t know how she does it. Maybe she’s just pretending.

I turn on the bathroom light so I can see, manage to find something to wear and start my morning routine. Then I slip on my boots and head out the door a few minutes after 5.

By 6:00 I have seen the livestock, stacked first wagon load of bales that were in the barn from last night and loaded another 30 from the back of the pickup. Just another two wagons between me and the finish line. Before stacking the bales I just put in the barn I return home to get Julie, the milker and the cooler. I can’t help but smell myself as I drive the truck. What a way to greet my wife in the morning.

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“You ready to go Boo?”

The oldest boy is coming too. Thank God.

I’m down to two wagons of hay to unload. Dad showed up early and the three of us got everything loaded and stacked by 8.

I need a glass of water.

The oldest daughter is making quiche for breakfast. It won’t be ready for a little while. Well, I better get at that horse manure.

After a little work I get the spreader out of the barn and parked next to the manure pile. No sooner than I get started shoveling dad calls to say a man is coming in 20 minutes to bid on building a pond. I just keep shoveling compost until they roll up.

I need a glass of water.

We drive out to the pasture and I point to the old pond with a failing dam. I also point to a new location where I would like to build a dam. They spend about an hour talking while standing in the full morning sun. They take some measurements, ask about a few options and he references a table to determine the cost.

Ho. Ly. Cow.

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Back to shoveling manure. The oldest boy is helping me now. He needed a little breakfast before he could do much of anything. He’s growing like a weed. At 13 he’s as tall as I am. Kid’s going to be a monster.

Dad has a lot to say about some folks from his church who were recently in Africa. “Should we be shipping rice from Arkansas to Africa or should we be teaching them to grow their own?” Along those lines, our conversation frequently drifts to wealth. Are the wealthy obliged to the poor? What can we do to help the poor? How can we build and preserve wealth while respecting others? That’s a funny conversation to have while shoveling rotted horse crap into a rusty, broken down manure spreader on a 100 degree Saturday morning.

Am I wealthy? Is this wealth? Will this activity help make me wealthy someday or am I wasting valuable time working too hard for too little return? I guess it’s a matter of perspective. Am I doing this because I’m rich or am I doing this because I’m poor.

I don’t know. Depends on who you ask I guess.

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I need a glass of water.

It’s not that I don’t drink water. It’s that my cup keeps getting empty. I bet I’ve had at least a gallon of water today and it’s only 10:30.

We top off the manure spreader with a layer of crushed limestone and head off to spread in the pasture. The plan is to work from the outside in, moving slowly for good coverage. I don’t even get 10 feet before the manure spreader breaks. The shaft that drives the beater has worn through under a wooden bushing.

We’ll have to drive back to the house to weld it up again.

Good. I need a glass of water.

Dad is a better welder than I am. That’s saying it too gently. Dad can weld. I can watch the welding rod spark and spit and make little piles of goose poop. I fill up on water and turn the shaft as he welds around it. We are using a stick welder on rusty metal so he has it turned up pretty hot. Dad burns through the shaft once…then again. Toward the end we’re really just crossing our fingers as he sews up the holes he made. Really, we should remove the shaft and replace a section but…well…let’s try it.

By 11:30 we have successfully unloaded the manure spreader and have positioned it where I can shovel a load of pig bedding for the same field. The pig bedding is in a shaded building. I snag a little lunch (the quiche) and a lot of water then dad and I chat while loading the wagon again…one forkful at a time.

I’m starting to feel tired.

By 2 we have that load on the field.

I need a glass of water.

Dad goes to his house, I go to mine. Remember that conversation about wealth? Running water is wealth. Cold water, running out of the shower is a blessing beyond description. The water feels cold as it hits my head but warm as it runs down my back.

Water is wealth. I need to save my water. I guess I’ll build the pond dam.

Dad calls and asks if our house is on fire.

“No, dad, it’s not.”

“Well, where is the smoke coming from?”

“What smoke?”

“Look south.”

The neighbor’s machine shed was on fire. The fire department kept things lively for a couple of hours as trucks with water tanks zip back and forth from town. Nobody was hurt. The neighbor lost a couple of tractors, some equipment and a lot of hay. We stop by to express our concern as do most of the neighbors. Nice living in a small community.

I’m not entirely sure what to do with myself now. Some new books came in the morning mail but I can’t seem to get myself excited about them. Looking back, I really don’t remember what I did between my shower and the reception. There are two hours that are just missing. Somebody got the eggs and checked that the stock all had water and then it was time to go.

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The reception was nice. Way out in the woods, a little music, a little BBQ, a little to drink. We saw an old classmate, some old friends and made arrangements to buy a few pigs the next day from Mike. It was really nice out there. Giant trees, a slight breeze, More food than we could eat. Kiddie pools full of water, soda and other drinks. Cake, pies, homemade ice cream. Thinking back to my conversation with dad, I don’t know what “wealth” looks like but what more could you want?

Then the storm arrived. We watched it roll in on radar and hopped in the car just as it arrived. It looked like it was going to be a pretty quick storm. I chose not to total tee at the reception so Julie drove us home. In the rain. Fortunately the storm was moving from north to south and we were able to get ahead of it most of the way home. We left the party in the rain then as soon as we walked in the door the rain hit our house.

It was not a quick storm but the lightning abated.

The chickens are in a new house and haven’t learned to roost inside of it yet. I need to go tuck in the birdies so I can move them to fresh pasture tomorrow morning but the storm won’t let up. I just have to do it. I just have to do it. Julie goes with me. I love her.

The birds are all roosted by 9:30. Not an easy chore to wrestle each bird in the mud and carrying it to the door of the coop. The rain still hasn’t let up. I hadn’t realized my rain coat had so many leaks. I’m soaked to the bone. I just spent two hours in the mud and chicken manure to convince a flock of chickens that it was bedtime. I must be wealthy. Maybe just stupid. Maybe wealthy enough to afford to be stupid?

Another shower and it’s time for my own bedtime.

I just closed my eyes and I hear it.

bing-BiNg-BING! bing-BiNg-BING!

“Ugh. It can’t be 5 already.”