Cattle I Have Owned

I plan to write a short series on the cow herd. I believe the cattle are the future. Feed them well and let them lead the way.

The future. I see the future in my mind. More cattle. Many more. Grass growing in dense stands, cattle, bunched up tightly, pushing organic material (grasses, tree branches, manure) into solid contact with the soil to feed the earth. The soil responding positively as impact and recovery cycles steadily build topsoil as the years pass by. And keep in mind, building soil is the goal, cattle are just the mechanism. I see it. Not just on my 60 but starting here. Right here. Today.

But I didn’t start today.

I started a few years ago. With just a few heifers.

First there were two dairy heifers, Mable and Flora.

WinterJerseys

Both great animals. Bred to thrive on grass. We bought these from Steve in 2011. What an upgrade from a goat! These would eat grass! It seemed to help for us to graze shorter grass, not tall grass. Also, you know that part about “thriving on grass” I wrote above? Well, when they are producing milk, they need quite a bit of energy. Energy that you just can’t get from fescue. We tried several things to keep them moving forward including giving them large areas of pasture daily but finally settled on giving them a mix of beets, carrots and oats with a smattering of molasses.

But we had cows. May is still with us. Expecting any day now. She is in a pen with the other recent moms. More on that later. Flora got sick. I don’t completely understand why or what but she just withered away over the course of a month or two. We suspect Johne’s but it could have been hardware disease too. We cried quite a bit when we lost her. Flora gave us only bull calves. May has only given us heifers.

Shorthorns1

 

Freezer was her first. I had no way to control a bull so we sent her back to Steve for breeding. He was born on the coldest day of February. We learned some lessons that day. Freezer didn’t stand up. We brought him in by the wood stove to dry and warm him in the back room. Julie and I tied and milked Flora to bottle feed the calf. It all worked out once he drank a little milk and he grew to be a fine young steer. We did not cry when we shipped Freezer. If anything, the pasture was a more friendly place in his absence.

The picture above shows the first four shorthorn heifers we bought and the day we introduced them to the herd. Here is another angle:

Shorthorns2

One problem we dealt with immediately was that Jersey cows are generous milkers. We had a few heifers drinking our family milk. I now separate mothers from calves. I hope someday to own more cattle who will kick away milk thieves…even their own calves after about 3 or 4 months.

Those are numbered 111, 41, 70 and 76. 70 turned out to be a freemartin (a sterile female) and is no longer on the farm. 41 has never weaned a calf. By accident, by injury by whatever, her calves don’t make it. 111 has given us two nice calves but came up open this year. 76 breeds back early and often, but her calf was stepped on last year. That was entirely my fault. Entirely.

Outside of those four heifers, we bought 81 and 27. Later we bought 2 and Snowball. I don’t remember Snowball’s number. She was pure white, except for the mud on her butt. Snowball was always a poor doer. We had little hope that she would breed.

Grazing

Snowball went down the road. Twoey (2) turned out to be another freemartin. 81 gave us a heifer last year but we had to pull it. She came up open this year. One calf in 3 years. 81 is just too big. So is 27. They can’t eat enough grass in a day to maintain condition, let alone to make milk. They have to leave the farm.

If you review that list again you will see that out of 10 heifers we bought, four made the team after 3 years. And all four of those only make the team because I make excuses for them.

 

Long term, the herd has to survive on the grass we have. The goal is for a cow to wean four calves in its first 6 years. I want those calves to wean between 400 and 600 pounds. Not too big, not too small. But if I demand that every cow on my farm meets those criteria immediately I won’t have a herd. I’ll have to cull every animal. And maybe that’s the right idea but what would I do with all of the grass?

But the reality is, I can’t buy cattle that thrive on the grass we have. They don’t exist. Oh, there are a few out there but the majority of the N. American cattle herd grows fat on corn. Do you read bass clef? All Cows Eat Grass. That is no longer true. We have nearly doubled the size of each animal on pasture in 50 years. Now I come in with these animals and put them at a severe disadvantage, asking some gas-guzzling hot rod to run on self-harvested solar power.

On top of that you have a greenhorn like me. I don’t know what I don’t know about cattle. And it shows. I bought freemartins for crying out loud! And I don’t always know how to give the cattle what they need. Water, grass and minerals? Oh, it sounds so easy. But let me tell you, it isn’t. It doesn’t work according to plan.

Well, it kind of works.

76 gave us Edith and a nice roan heifer this spring.

first new calf

111 gave us Agnes and a little bull calf. Turns out the bull calf is horned so I’ll have to make a decision on his future soon.

Mable gave us three heifers so far. We sold her first back to Steve. Clover is half shorthorn and gave us a beautiful 3/4 shorthorn bull calf this spring. Lucy is developing in the pasture and is stringy and bony like a dairy cow. Ugh.

81 gave us one heifer. We had to pull her. That heifer needs to leave the farm.

All of these second-generation heifers are better than their mothers. Their daughters will be even closer to what we need. But progress happens slowly. Deliberately. Gaining momentum over time.

Maybe by the time I’m 70 I’ll have cattle worth owning. Maybe.

So how can I begin to impact my pasture with so few cattle? It takes a lot of animals to make herd impact. Apparently, you need 300 head of cattle to make the herd become a different organism altogether, something that acts like a mob, eating what is available instead of just what is tasty. Pounding the soil with hooves and manure, restoring pasture ecology and diversity quickly and efficiently, pushing the weak animals to the perimeter like a real herd in the wild.

Someday.

We have kept 40% of our original herd for 4 years. I am not happy with that number. But I am willing to be honest and open with you about mistakes we have made. You need to buy cows that are closer to grass, even if you have to pay a premium for them. Our cows were purchased at market price and are costing me years. Years.

Tomorrow I plan to write about how I am controlling the small herd I have as we work to grow better grass tomorrow.

Where is My Joie de Vivre?

Something is wrong. Something is really, really wrong. I could only see red on Thursday. That’s not me. So I took a little time off.

Our pastor spoke this weekend about James 1, being quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. I tend to fail on the slow to speak thing but, generally, anger is not my issue. Not as an adult anyway.

Julie and I are dealing with some stuff. Over the last 8 months we have watched as our daughter was treated for cancer. One day, happy, healthy little girl. Then she had cancer. Nothing I could do.

Seemingly the next day she had a vacuum line running between two ribs causing her intense pain. Nothing I could do.

Then there were weeks of time when I was home with the other kids while Julie and our little patient lived at the hospital. And there was nothing I could do.

I was helpless as she threw up for days on end, helpless as her hair fell out, helpless during her surgery at Christmas. Compounding that, I was helpless toward the other beautiful children and scared parents we met in the hospital. A hospital for sick children. At Christmas.

We lost two kids we knew at Christmas. 7 children in the 8 months at the hospital. There was nothing I could do.

And I still had a job and livestock and bills to pay and dishes to wash and stuff to do.

And I was not dealing with it in a healthy way.

Mostly I would race through my chores then play Minecraft with the other kids. But it was all racing. It was all rush. It was all hurry. Fast food, Coca-cola, late nights, early mornings. I stopped reading. I stopped exploring. I stopped writing. I stopped doing. Because there was nothing I could do. I was trying to be a “good dad” but, really, I was just distracting myself from the pain and feeling of helplessness.

I have hit low points in my life. Lower, I hope, than most people sink to. I was not at my lowest point but I was not in a healthy place.

As I walked through that valley, that low point, I decided to maybe stop drinking so much caffeine and sugar. My blood pressure had been high and my sleep quality had been poor. This seemed like a good first step to resolve my near-constant headache. With the exit of Coca-cola, my headaches intensified for about 2 miserable weeks. Then I felt like an AA member. I could tell you the last time I drank a Coke. “My name is Chris and I am addicted to sugar and caffeine. I had my last Coke on Feb. 20, 2016.”

But I really just replaced Coke with unsweetened coffee. I had to fix that too.

I also stopped drinking alcohol. After I dropped coke I found myself drinking a beer or two every night. Maybe a glass or two of wine. That’s not an outlandish amount of alcohol for many people but it is for me. So I stopped.

And I stopped eating multiple handfuls of candy from the candy dish at work.

And Julie and I cleaned up our diet. Again.

But the things that were whispering at me before we screaming at me now. Oh. My. Gosh! It is amazing how quickly and easily I can be set off. And for no reason! I stewed for two days on a joke some idiot made during a conversation on Thursday. Fortunately, I kept my thoughts to myself but…I was not happy.

Do you remember happy? I remember happy. Happy was reading books and sharing them with you. Happy was taking pictures of growing grass and cow manure and wondering if I could make the grass or cow manure look better by changing my grazing management. Happy was raising chickens and pigs and cows and children and preserving my marriage and continuing my education and writing about it and wondering, myself, how I had time to do it all.

But that was before my daughter got cancer and there was nothing I could do but watch her suffer as the treatment continued. Watching alone, from the sidelines. Living a third or more of my life without my wife at home, the rest of the time working to ensure that she and our daughter could rest because being at the hospital is not restful. At all.

Our daughter’s treatments are behind us. It seems I was able to push all of my bags to the side while she was receiving treatment but now it is all washing over me. I should feel relieved but, really, I just feel tired. So tired. Old.

I picked up some bad habits over the last 8 months. I lost some good habits too. I stopped practicing my writing, for example.

I broke up with Coca-cola in February. In June I am going to get back together with my old friend the blog. I’m going to try anyway.

These feeling I am dealing with? The experience we have been through? That feeling of rejection and isolation a husband feels when (in his mind) his wife chooses a child over him? Substance abuse? Insomnia? High blood pressure? Depression? These things have ground me down in ways that are not always visible from the outside. All of those families I met in the hospital are dealing with this too. And nobody talks about it.

Find a way to reach out to a family in need, including the husband who is expected to be strong and not to cry and to go to work, and keep it all together and to just deal with it all like a “man”. And if you are in need, please reach out. If you don’t know who else to call, reach out to me. Believe me, I understand.

This will be a farm blog again soon. I promise.

When Life Hands You Chickens, You Make…

Four years ago a friend of a friend bought three silver-laced Wyandottes at a store in Alton to make his granddaughter happy. She was, indeed, happy. But the subdivision rules said “no”.

With promises to do our level best to protect and love those chickens, the grandfather brought them to our farm. His face showed regret mixed with relief.

Dot and her two sisters did not fit in well with the flock. They were smaller than the other pullets and that comes at a cost. They were not allowed to roost at night and slept next to the chicken house.

dot 2

Two of the three were murdered in the middle of the night by an evil, stinking, thieving skunk. We slept in the field for a week trying to bring that monster to justice. We failed. But the kids had fun. Grandpa and grandma and the kids slept in a tent next to the pond. I patrolled on foot or slept next to the chicken tractor. I guess it sounds romantic but it was miserable in real life.

The skunk problem may have been solved for us by way of owl. Or car. I don’t know. But the murder of our chickens abated…briefly.

Dot eventually became a part of the flock. The only black and white bird in a sea of red. How could we avoid naming her?

dot 3

Somehow, years passed by. Where did the time go? Where does the time go?

Dot died earlier this week after a big storm passed. I went out to close up the birds after moving the cows and noticed her laying still, taking shallow breaths under the nest boxes, unable or unwilling to open her eyes.

I have some idea what was wrong with Dot. Mostly I suspect she was old. There is nothing I can do to prevent old. I believe her heart had failed her in some way, though her comb was not yet blue.

So it was time for Dot to do what Dot should have done a long time ago. We should not own 4 year old hens.

Dot lived with a purpose. She is not a pet. She is a farm animal. She existed because she was productive. When she is no longer productive she moves on to the next job. The last job. Two gallons of beautiful, amber broth.

I left Dot sitting on a jacket in a cardboard box while Julie boiled scald water. This box was last used to comfort a dying cat at Christmas. The cat was a pet. We buried it. Dot is not a pet. Dot is food.

It only takes a minute to dress out a hen. We let her soak, maybe with a dash of salt, then she stewed overnight with a few onions.

There are three details I would like to add in here. First, she had a heart attack as evidenced by what I found inside of her. Second, she was in otherwise excellent health and, even at her age, was still actively laying. Third, we would never even consider selling a sick bird. We keep them for ourselves. Heart attack birds taste a little off.

dot

That said, I suspect she will taste something like our pasture. She will taste like long nights sitting under the moonlight staring at the stars. She will taste like sacks and sacks and sacks of feed I carried on my left shoulder to the pasture over hills and across creeks. Mountains of bedding shoveled in and out of the chicken house or the greenhouse. She will taste like every morning I opened the chicken house door no matter what the weather and every evening I closed the door to keep them safe at night. She will taste like the long July days we spent in the hot sun building said chicken house. I cannot waste years of investment by burying Dot in the compost pile.

I would rather she had lived. I liked Dot. But this is what needs to be done.

The pasture feels a little empty without her.

The Life-Changing Magic of Planting Trees

Mom mentioned some childhood neighbors in a blog comment yesterday that got me thinking about Mrs. Ruth. She lived next door when I was very young. I have only a few memories of her, really: She had a cat, she was a German immigrant and tended to mutter to herself in low German when I was around, she kept candy orange slices in the bottom crisper drawer of her fridge and she had three cherry trees east of her garage.

I remember more than that about Mrs. Ruth but the cherry trees are etched into my mind forever. In fact, I checked Google maps and it looks like the trees are still there. As a kid I would take a break from my sandbox and climb into the mulberry tree in our back yard for a snack and I would tend to stare in the direction of the cherry trees wondering why there were always mulberries but almost never cherries. But on those rare few days when they were ripe we would all help Mrs. Ruth pick cherries.

Buckets of cherries. Cherries in the freezer. Cherries in jellies. Cherry pies. Cherries cooked into a sauce with sugar and poured over ice cream. I don’t even know what else.

And you can’t overlook the reliable mulberry tree in that story.

Mulberries. Julie and her brothers didn’t have much experience with mulberries when I met them. Julie and I would walk through the pasture together at her parent’s house (definitely not a date, right?) and eat and talk (cause we are just friends, right?) and hold hands (friends can hold hands, right?). Mulberries were a staple food. They are not too sweet and tend to be a little stemmy but don’t have the pesky seeds of a dewberry or black raspberry. We would pick a few berries in the summer evening, our hands would be stained purple just like in the picture I shared a few years back of picking mulberries while putting up hay…because we always stop to rest in the shade under the mulberry trees in the bottom.

MulberryJuice

Not all mulberry trees are created equal, btw. Some are more sweet than others and some don’t fruit at all. And having written “btw” I am reminded that mulberries have a good BTU rating (above oaks) and coppice well. And the leaves are a good source of protein for cattle. So these are trees I work to keep around. Although, you don’t have to work too hard as mulberries tend to grow wherever there are birds.

But cherry trees are a different story altogether. There are wild black cherry trees all over our farm. We have picked buckets of these too but the fruit tends to be bitter and thin around the stone. Apparently it makes a good cordial. But a sweet or sour domesticated cherry tree is a real treasure.

My friend Yoichiro came to visit us in 2013. He and I planted a cherry tree together. I think of him every time I look at that tree. I am still happy we shared that experience.

I got the sapling from my friend Steve. They are a small, short-lived sour cherry and they replace themselves readily. He digs up a dozen or so saplings every year. The original sapling came from an abandoned farmstead. He dug it up at some point in the last 20 or 30 years. Here is a picture of it several years ago.

Garden2

Let’s review. decades ago, Steve and his wife spent an afternoon driving through the countryside looking for heirloom varieties in the yards of abandoned farm houses. Among other things, Steve found a cherry tree that he brought home, planted, cared for and propagated. Doesn’t that sound nice?

Years later we were invited to pick cherries and asked if he could spare a sapling we noticed coming up under the canopy. Early the next spring Steve loaded us up with a trunk full of food, rhubarb plants and a small cherry sapling.

A friend from Japan came to visit in 2013. Together we planted the cherry sapling above promising to meet again someday and enjoy the fruit together. Then my kids and I planted daffodils and comfrey around it.

Steve came by later, inspected the planting and took home some comfrey and some bamboo from my yard.

Do you see how that little cherry tree is intertwined in our relationships? …in our community?

Life changing magic.

I wrote about my grandpa Jordan recently. Last summer my kids and I spent a hot afternoon picking peaches from his peach tree. They were not spectacular peaches…kind of small and spotty. But he planted a tree, did a little maintenance on it and we all ate all we wanted and my kids have a fun memory of standing on great-grandpa Jordan’s cannon while picking peaches…just days before our youngest was diagnosed with cancer.

Peaches.jpg

What is the value of that peach tree? Or grandpa’s grape vines he made homemade wine from?

I have shared about my friend Eileen, her Mutsu apples and chestnut trees. This year we came home with a  trash can of waste apples and a big, big box of chestnuts. The pigs made pigs of themselves.

And it seems obvious to remember Aunt Marian’s apple trees. I have written this before but I would race to prune her trees as fast as I could, doing a portion of each tree each year, because she would catch me pruning and would run me off. But I had her Mutsu in good shape by making a few “accidental” cuts here and there to slowly get the tree in shape. And I got all the apples I could use. And so did the pigs. And aunt Marian had all kinds of stories about each tree in her orchard and where they came from.

picking apples

I’m sure there are other things you can do to build inter-generational memories but trees put down roots. There is a giant burr oak tree in my pasture that my grandpa Chism said was always big. Roots. Ties to previous generations.

What is that worth?

Where are you planting your trees? You don’t need a farm. You just have to stay put for a while.

 

The Jordan Side of Me

My mom is a Chism. I am surrounded by Chism…or descendants of Chism. Being related to the whole county made dating difficult as a teen.

Seriously.

But dad came from another state.

In some ways I identify more with my grandpa Chism than with my grandpa Jordan. Maybe because of proximity. I spent a lot of time on this farm as a small child, not so much in Indianapolis. Maybe because my grandpa Chism had tractors. I don’t know. I am not writing a comparison, I am hurting a little and thinking of both.

I am who I am, in part, because they were who they were.

The “me” inside of “me” has a lot to do with who I thought they were. And who I thought they were is surprisingly different than who my sister thought they were. And that is different than who my dad thought they were.

So who am I? And who do my children think I am?

My grandpa Jordan passed away last week at the age of 89. I have spent a lot of time in thought about the man and my relationship with him. And in my own head I seem to be mourning both of my grandfathers which is odd because grandpa Chism died nearly 20 years ago.

I really didn’t know my grandpa Chism when I was an adult. I saw him through the idealistic eyes of a child. He was big and strong and did the things big, strong farmer guys did. He was also quietly tolerant of me.

But I had time to really get to know my grandpa Jordan. He was not quietly tolerant of me. He was strong but not big. He did things retired city people did…like scratch lottery tickets. But he was also a carpenter and I have a number of skills I learned either directly from grandpa or from my father who learned from grandpa.

So who am I?

Carpentry and farming go well together but am I quietly tolerant or not?

I have wrestled with this kind of thinking all week. I am not Tom Chism. I am not Sherman Jordan. But they are certainly both a strong dose of what I hold up as the ideal of man.

I am acutely aware of both of my grandfathers’ many flaws. They were not perfect men. As an adult I avoided certain conversations with grandpa Jordan and to this day thank God he gave me a polite nickname (Old-timer). So why did he have rude nicknames for everybody else? That’s not part of my picture of ideal manhood. But it is not fair to say that my grandfather was a jerk. He could be at times but so can I.

There were conversations I just could not have with my grandpa. We could not talk about politics or religion…but that’s common in any relationship. But we could talk about stocks and coin collecting and commodity futures. These were safe topics, especially if you just open the throttle and let him run. But never get him started on “rich people” or labor or any of his ongoing list of conspiracies…

I learned to handle my grandpa safely. Great. What does that have to do with me? And what ON EARTH does that have to do with the farm?

There was no Jordan farm until dad bought land in the ’80’s. I think that is an important detail in this reflection. There was no land. No tie. No roots. There is a Jordan cemetery somewhere in Tennessee but I don’t know anybody in there. I know an awful lot about the Chism people buried on the next hill over from my house. I live in a house my grandparents lived in…a house my grandpa’s uncle built. On land we have owned for nearly 200 years. Why didn’t the Jordan family settle? Why didn’t they build permanence?

I don’t know much of anything about Sherman’s father, Arthur. I remember vague stories of extreme poverty and abuse. From what I have put together, grandpa Jordan had a very difficult childhood right up until he lied about his age to join the Navy. Then he met up with his siblings again, opened a carpentry business with his brother and played euchre. I have memories of my aunts and uncles playing cards at the dining room table together. Even if he made insulting comments, I think we can safely say that grandpa was different than his father. Better. Even if still rough.

And my father is better still.

I am who I am because he was who he was. I am who I am because he pushed me to become more than he was…even if just to prove him wrong about me. And my kids, through positive reinforcement, will continue that refining what it means to be a Jordan.

There is a lot to explore within our family legacy and culture. Who am I? Who are we? What do we believe? How do we treat each other? What do we offer our future generations?

I haven’t answered any questions here. These are ideas I am struggling to understand and I hope you are too.

Julie and I are exploring, establishing and refining our family culture together with our parents and our children. We are purposeful about giving everyone a sense of belonging, love, place and purpose. This is our way of cleaning the world by cleaning our front step. How are you changing the world?

A Season of Rest

So there I was…right in the middle of reading Henderson’s book “The Farming Manual”…and then…nothing.

Nothing for weeks.

What happens next? Henderson tells us all about humane animal handling and teaches me a few things I was able to put to immediate use. But that’s for another time.

And it’s not that I haven’t written anything. Oh, I have written. I have posts about why it is not economical for me to fill the hog floor, posts about cows that came up open and what it means to our herd, posts about books, posts about my daughter. I have written. But I have not finished a single one of them.

And why? We were (maybe are) in a season of rest.

Our days are largely the same. We make four trips daily to the chickens out in the pasture. We see the sun rise at the chicken house, we see the sun set at the chicken house. In between we feed, water and collect eggs.

Chickens follow the cows on the pasture, scratching through the manure, “spreading repugnancy zones” to quote Salatin. Look, I don’t know about repugnancy zones. Looks to me like the chickens spread out the piles to eat worms and maybe that’s good but maybe I need more worms. Maybe I don’t need chickens. Maybe I need longer recovery windows. I don’t know. I can clearly see that cows don’t eat near cow poop unless you starve them but…well, what is the relative value of living worms compared to decaying chicken manure? I don’t know.

So I write about what I don’t know. This should give me plenty to write about but…well, it is a little embarrassing. Worse when some major web site reposts something I wrote, making my ignorance available to a wider audience. But I want to know. I want to understand. I don’t want to just do what grandpa did.

But what else is there to say about cows? They move every day. When the grass grows quickly, the cows move quickly. Right now (3/12/16) the pastures are greening up. Half of my farm is still stockpiled from last fall. We are accelerating our grazing pattern and it won’t be long before we begin to cover the whole farm every two weeks. But right now we are holding back, protecting our tender, emerging grass as the season changes.

Is there a blog post in that? Sure. But…I feel like I have already written it.

So what would I write about instead of another post on the consistency of cow poop? I could write about all of the things we are not doing this season and why we are not doing them.

We do not have broilers this spring. Our daughter’s treatment schedule would not allow us the opportunity. But in a normal year we would have broilers on pasture already. I would be waking up on a frosty morning like this, preparing to move chicken tractors, hoping they didn’t all pile up and kill each other overnight in the cold shelter. Praying that a skunk didn’t help himself to a buffet overnight. Usually we are pleasantly surprised that the birds are warm, safe and dry in the chicken tractor. But this year without the birds, everything seems kind of empty. No drive to Iowa in a blizzard. No brooder maintenance in freezing weather. We are not marketing birds to be processed on April 23rd. Nothing.

Nothing.

I raised 5 pigs over the winter on the hog floor, mostly as an experiment. Could I raise them in a way that satisfied their needs to dig and forage on a concrete slab? Could I raise them there in a way that satisfied my needs to pay taxes and buy shoes? I may answer that question in a detailed blog post later but the short answer is this: The pigs are all leaving the farm on Tuesday. I doubt I will have pigs again until August at the earliest.

Where is the encouragement telling those starting out that they, too, can succeed? Has it run out? Not really. I mean, you can do it. It is possible. But I am no shining example of success. We sell all of our eggs but $5 eggs are no way to make a farm payment. It’s just something to do. An excuse to walk out to see the sun rise in the morning. Something to do while holding hands with my bride, watching the sunset in the evening.

Sunset.JPG

Our daughter’s illness has been a major distraction from everything else in my life. I feel that my job performance has suffered. I am not blogging. The farm has been pared back to very, very little. Even my reading has slowed down considerably.

So that’s where I am. Away for a season. Away to evaluate what is important to our family. Writing blog posts, like raising pigs, does not pay taxes or buy shoes. But I feel that it is important that I leave this as some sort of legacy for my children’s children. A way for them to pick my brain. I really don’t know anything about my great grandpa Jordan. His name was Arthur. That’s about it. So what about my great grand-children?

“Who was great grandpa Jordan?” they may ask. “Did he have insecurities? Did he struggle or was everything easy for him?” Yes, I have insecurities. Yes, I struggle. I drive away from farm and family every day to pay taxes and buy shoes. I come home to clean and pack eggs, plan out grazing, work on the well pump, carry hay, scoop manure, fold laundry and wash dishes. Each day is largely the same as the one before. But that doesn’t mean we are bored…or that we are boring. But we are busy. But busy and productive are not the same.

I would want my children to know that I am not always productive. I am not always successful. I sometimes struggle. Some mornings I have a hard time getting out of bed. Some evenings I am asleep at 8:30. Sometimes I drag a book out over a few weeks. Some seasons are for rest. But then the season changes.

Seasons change. And our season is changing.

Servers, Daughters and Dealing with Stuff

One of my egg customers invited me into a small prayer group when our daughter was diagnosed. The prayer group recently shared that a friend’s father had been diagnosed with cancer. I’m sure you, someone you love or someone you know has been diagnosed with cancer. And I’m equally certain you are acutely aware of the deep anxiety that accompanies diagnosis.

I took a moment to write out some encouragement for the friend. This slightly edited version may serve to encourage you as well.

My name is Chris Jordan. My daughter has a rare form of cancer but an excellent prognosis. We spend a lot of time in Children’s hospital and meet a large number of children and families. We seek to counsel and comfort them as we also seek counsel and comfort. In part, this is because the apostle Paul didn’t ask God why he was in prison. He asked God what he should do while he was in prison. Then he went to work.

I don’t know why my beautiful daughter has cancer. That’s really none of my business. I have seen a lot of children and whole families in pain in Children’s. It is tempting for me to ask God “Why?” But that is not what I need to do.

I don’t need to seek answers. I need to seek closeness with God.

And I am not alone in this need.

So I go out of my way to introduce myself to parents I run into. My daughter takes her dance partner (her IV stand) with her to deliver cards to other kids on the floor and invites them to play video games with her. We seek out opportunities in the elevator and hallway to pray for or pray with desperate parents or just to listen to them talk. And sometimes we all really, really need to talk.

Listen, I know how you feel. I know what you are going through. And I want to encourage you, as I encourage other families I meet, not to ask God “Why?” It doesn’t matter why. Asking Why makes you a victim. You are not a victim. You are a treasure and were created for a purpose. It only matters what you do. And what you need to do is pray. Ask.

Jesus didn’t walk around randomly healing the blind. In Matthew 20:32-33 Jesus waited for the blind men to ask. In Matthew 9:20 the woman reached out to touch Jesus. She had to reach out! In Matthew 8:8 the centurion asked Jesus for a simple word.

God is infinitely larger than your largest problem. Do you believe that? But you have to ask, just as Moses had to hold his arms out and the widow had to pour the oil. We have to ask. We have to pray. We have to draw close to the Lord and, I strongly suggest, PRAISE HIM for our time of need…a time that reminds us to seek Him out. A time that reminds us to seek his strength and remember that the angel of the lord encamps around and delivers us! Great is the Lord and Greatly to be Praised! Even if, like David, we don’t always feel it and we have to give ourselves a pep talk. Bless the Lord, Oh my soul! And all that is within me praise his holy name!

Please don’t waste your time seeking answers. Desperate times call for desperate measures. There is no more desperate act than praying hard. (This is a note I made in my prayer journal as I was recently reading The Circle Maker.)

One more thing. In Genesis 1:3 God spoke light into a dark place. I have been to dark places. In fact, I have been to dark places trying to balance my daughter’s illness, my job, my marriage, my farm…The light of the word of God brought me back to the path. Lean on the word of God now.

Feel free to reach out to us anytime.

Chris Jordan

Now let’s be real. We are friends here, you and I. Let me be completely honest with you. I wrote that for myself as much as for anyone else.

On Friday I was talking with my boss and discussing the issues I was facing that day. I needed to replace a mission-critical server and my daughter needed a blood transfusion. When discussing the issue with the server I was pacing, moving my hands excitedly and clearly expressing my anxiety. But when discussing my daughter I was sitting calmly on a chair and speaking matter-of-factly.  My boss pointed this out to me. He was concerned that I was worked up about the wrong thing.

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Do you know how much time I have spent praying about that server? Very little.

Do you know how much time I have spent praying about my daughter?

Heck, I have hundreds, if not, thousands of people praying for my daughter. I kinda think that’s covered. But the server is unprotected. So I got a little worked up on Friday.

Yes, I am extremely concerned about my little girl but somehow, it is different. Most of the time.

Most of the time.

But some of the time? Well, I think it is understandable that some of the time I go to pieces. Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I wonder why my little girl got sick. Sometimes I worry about her future. She will be screened for cancer at regular intervals for the rest of her life. Why? Because there is a good chance this cancer will return or another cancer will appear. Or she will suffer side-effects of the drugs used to beat her cancer…like heart failure. What will her medical expenses be in 10 years?

Do you see how easy it is? We are facing real problems. But it is all a lie.

I can’t live my life in fear and anxiety. I can’t love my daughter that way. Even without cancer there is no guarantee that she will live to be 50. My job is to love and guide her. And I can’t love and guide her in the present if I’m crying about a tomorrow that hasn’t come yet…and may never arrive.

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The server issue at work is resolved. No big deal. You make this thing point to that thing and do some stuff so the servers know and trust each other…blah, blah, blah. What is the worst that could happen if server replacement failed? I would probably have to put in a couple of long days. Would I lose my job? Probably not. But there are worse things than losing my job.

But I wasted a lot of emotional energy on that issue.

I have wasted a lot of emotional energy worrying about my daughter too.

So I have to remind myself. I was created for a purpose. I am not an accident. I am a treasure. I have a Father in heaven who loves me…who wants to bless me. And I need to bless Him. Bless the Lord! O my soul! Especially if I don’t feel like it today.

The Farming Manual: Rick Building and Thatching

TheFarmingManual

I’m afraid this chapter has little to offer me unless I look at the pattern exposed by the chapter. Let me start at the middle of the chapter

There is a big difference between building with 6-ft. wheat sheaves, and little, short, round barley sheaves.

The world has changed, Mr. Henderson. We no longer value straw. We have, in the modern era, moved to shorter wheat. I have never been lost in a wheat field. So I cannot build the rick you are describing. Even if you watch BBCs Victorian Farm you see short sheaves.

Some years ago I asked an elderly neighbor (when his combine was plugged up with wet wheat) if he could make a sheaf. He laughed, said yes and then said no. He could but he wouldn’t. He began twisting wheat to bind the sheaf and then he stopped saying he would never do that again…that there was no need.

He passed away a few years ago. That knowledge went with him.

Mr. Henderson spends the entire chapter cautioning us against common errors. Lay sheaves with the knots up. Build on a flat spot. The rick should be slightly larger at the top than at the bottom. Pages and pages of things to do and things to avoid so you will have a successful threshing 10 or so days later.

…a Cotswold farmer, with a rick big enough to hold a day’s threshing, will like his oats to ‘Hear the church bells twice’ in the field…

And then they thresh the wheat. There are still threshing machines around. You will see collections of antique equipment at shows in nearby towns. Groups of belt-driven and steam-powered equipment operated and maintained by older gentlemen who may or may not have both of their hands.

The next part of the chapter covers thatching and I feel that this paragraph is key:

About 2 cwt. of straw is required for each square of thatching. A ton should be kept back for every day’s threshing anticipated. Ideally, it should be hand-threshed with a flail, and grown without the aid of artificial fertilizers – although the farmer who can supply that today can sell every handful at a high price for house thatching. Straw that has been combine-harvested, baled or threshed with a fast-moving peg drum, is useless for thatching. In the West of England there are a few special threshing machines designed for the preparation of thatching straw, but require about five men to take the straw off.

This continues for a few pages. Please allow me to summarize. Even in Henderson’s time it was hard to find suitable straw for house thatching. That means I’m never going to thatch my house.

Look, I know. Those are difficult words to read. We love the Earth and want a biodegradable roof…as long as it doesn’t biodegrade today. And we have all seen The Quiet Man and want a cottage in Ireland with a thatched roof and a green door. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? But just like a prepper with a Red Dawn fantasy, we have to be more honest about our motivations. You don’t prep because you fear Russian invasion, you prep because unemployment lasts longer if you don’t have to buy food when you are unemployed. Chances are, you don’t want a thatched roof because it is practical either.

But let’s say you are not convinced. Good for you. Can you learn to thatch a roof by reading Henderson’s 6 pages? No. He is looking to improve the worker who is already familiar with the process. Can you learn to thatch by watching Tales from the Green Valley? No. But you can get an overview of the process.

Most of the skill in thatching comes from practice, well-prepared straw, carefully drawn yelms, and good organization of the work – the correct number of yelms in a jack to do one strip of the roof, the ladder in just the right place, and so on.

I seriously doubt that I will ever rip my soil to plant an antique variety of wheat. Further, I seriously doubt I will walk out to my fields with a sharpened scythe to harvest my wheat, then bind it by hand into sheaves, then stack it in ricks, thresh it by hand, pile and wet the straw and thatch a building. I might decide to do that one summer but I have serious doubts.

So the value of this chapter comes from the quote above. Most of the skill on my farm comes from practice, quality materials and good organization. However, Henderson spends page after page giving pointers. In real life that doesn’t work well.

Go ahead. Approach your spouse and list, in one long monologue, all of the things they can do to be a better person today. Let me know how that works out.

Henderson had to do that. It is a book, not a relationship. But in coaching my children or helping my wife I have to reserve comment from time to time. If I dare to open my yap I offer one pointer…not so much that they are confused by my instruction, just enough that they can make a small course adjustment and practice more effectively today.

So that’s the one small adjustment I have gained from this chapter today. I can give thought to organizing our labor. I can ensure that we have what we need to do the job right. And I can help everyone practice more effectively by saying less at once.

The Farming Manual: Hedges

TheFarmingManual

I have my days. Sometimes I sit, misty-eyed, looking at my fields dreaming of hedges following the contours of the landscape, providing shelter for wildlife, wind protection for the herds, cow protection for the cars driving past…sigh…

I should take a moment to be clear on this topic. What is a “hedge”? Hedges are not something we see outside of gardens in this country. This video is quite lengthy but covers the whole shebang from a how-to perspective.

And here is a later video of the same hedge discussing the results.

So we are talking about planting and training a fence. You typically want a plant species that will coppice well, something that will respond positively to being stressed, something that will grow in close quarters and, usually, something with thorns. You know what will coppice well, grow in close quarters and has thorns? Osage Orange.

Some years ago I read the book Hedges, Windbreaks, Shelters and Live Fences by E. P. Powell dated 1900. He is against using Osage Orange. While they fit most of the criteria, they tend to grow out as much as they grow up and you have to, according to Powell, trim them three times each summer. Worse, you have to lay the hedge at some point. Osage Orange typically has 1″ thorns spaced 1″ apart along the entire length of young growth. How on Earth would you weave those together as in the video above?

Rather than review Powell’s book I’ll continue with Henderson’s species recommendations.

In hedge laying every effort should be made to preserve the hawthorn, which is the hedging material par excellence, it gets its name from the Anglo-Saxon ‘hedge thorn’. If there is any choice, the hazel, elder, maple, privet, spindlewood, wayfarer, guilder, and briar should be cut out, a rapid-growing, large-leafed species is the enemy of the thorn.

We have hawthorn on the farm and, BOY!, does it succumb to fire blight. I suppose I could try to bring a blight-resistant species onto the farm or, over the long years, attempt to breed a more resistant strain of my own.

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Hazel isn’t exactly common in my area. Elder grows everywhere but is, in my opinion, not a worthwhile wood to cultivate. Maple sneaks in where it can. Same with black raspberry…and poison ivy. And rather than deal with a thorny, tangled mess intertwined with poison ivy, modern farmers tend to put up barbed wire or high-tensile fence and keep the fence clean with round-up. Or, if they have a line of trees (not a hedge) they just try to cut them back every so often.

High-tensile electric works pretty well. But that’s not what Julie and I are after. We need wind protection. We need wildlife habitat. We need food production. We need coppiced wood. We need a barrier to smaller animals. And to get this I have to grow appropriate species to my climate and lay them in a woven, living mesh, not just chop them back every so often.

Hedge cropping, the mere cutting back of growth, is not so effective, as the hedge tends to get thin at the bottom and gaps appear through which stock may escape, while a really well-laid hedge is hen proof.

And, later:

Hundreds of farmers no longer keep sheep because their hedges will no longer confine them. On many farms all the stock roam over too wide an area for want of efficient hedging. On such farms it is difficult to think of a more profitable investment for time, money, and effort, than in putting all the hedges in order.

From here, Henderson begins on dry stone walling. My enthusiasm for hedging is, I believe, obvious. My lack of enthusiasm on the subject of dry-stone walling may be similarly obvious. We do not grow rocks where I live. I suppose there are rocks down there somewhere but not like they are a few hours to the north. I have driven past fields in Wisconsin where there are piles of stones that must grow like potatoes in the soil each winter for harvest each spring. The few we have were carried by glacial action or by my vacationing grandparents. But he does talk a little about contour here, something we missed in the section about hedges

Where boundaries run up hill, the wall should be built horizontally, and not up the slope. Heading stones should be supported by a large block occasionally, or made to lean uphill, so that if a lower stone is removed accidentally the others do not fall like a pack of cards.

Contour is important for other reasons though. We want to slow down the flow of water so we can store as much as possible and settle out any sediment the flowing water has picked up as it passes over and through our farm. Our creeks should be wide. Our ponds should be many. And our hills should focus the flow of water to the ridges while slowing the passage of water downhill. The top of the hill is the place to store water. But sometimes hills cannot be avoided and for those moments it is appropriate to remember that water flows through plants too. Sap goes up the stem of the plant. Cut your pleaches so your hedge grows up hill to retain the flow of sap. It’s too much to ask a tree to grow upside-down.

Henderson ends the chapter talking about sheep hurdles. “Hurdles” are wooden sections of temporary fence. This is wood craft. Coppiced wood (probably hazel) made into a kind of wicker fence section.

That’s not for me either. But there is some detail here that pertains to us. We use temporary electric fencing and that requires some level of planning.

A very important aspect is in planning the number of daily pens in a given field inch a way as to give the sheep the food they require, and at the same time ensure the minimum of effort for the land covered, and to never the finish at the week-end with all the additional labour of moving to the next field. The old shepherds were always very cunning in having it all worked out. Many of them never set a hurdle after mid-day, but spent their spare time ‘looking at the sheep’, while lesser men would strive all day to catch up. In the old days it was reckoned one man could set for 400 sheep grazing roots, or half that number if he was grinding (pulping) the roots by hand. It was equivalent to having 1,000 sheep on each acre per day, no wonder the Golden Age of British farming was based upon them.

That is to say, if we are attentive to what we are doing we can be more efficient about it. There is a real difference in the amount of time and energy I spend building fence compared to the time Julie spends on the same task. But this isn’t a chapter about rotational grazing. It’s a chapter about restraining livestock.

The hedge is of interest to me. I have allowed a few black locust trees to sprout up here and there intending to pull them with the tractor and put them all in a row. I think this is the year. Mulberry would work well too. No thorns to mess with. Hawthorn may be the gold-standard but I can’t seem to get ahead of the fire blight. Osage Orange is only in Illinois because it was believed to be the best option in North America. Who am I to argue with that? I’ll argue anyway though. I hate Osage Orange. Hate.

What is the best option where you live? Probably high-tensile electric. But are you adventurous or dumb enough to hedge? Skilled enough to build a dry stone wall? Silly enough to make wooden hurdles in an era of electric netting?

Maybe it’s not dumb or silly. Maybe it’s the right thing to do in any economy. I don’t know.

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.

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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.

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On a hike with my best friend.

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Because we really need some time.

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Shadow selfie.

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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.