There was Supposed to Be a Waterfall

Let me start at the end. We found a waterfall.

Waterfall

Now that you know how the story ends let me tell you how the story begins.

The innkeeper told us it was the first July he could remember that the waterfalls were running and we should make it a point to see them…assuming we were outdoors-types. He found my blog somehow and knew we were.

We decided to start at the waterfall marked on our map furthest from our hotel. Clever, eh? We drove to Burden Falls. There is a small parking lot at the trail head. Ours was the only car. The trail looked nice enough. We were at the top of a hill. Julie and I started on our way. Much of the trail was under dense canopy of a forest that appears to have been planted 30 years (or so) ago.Trail1

The path was nearly covered in places by thick growths of poison ivy and, clever young man that I am, I was wearing shorts.

Trail3

But we soldiered on through. How far could it be? We followed the trail through the tall trees.

Trail2

The trail went down and down the hill. Poison ivy everywhere. The path blocked by innumerable spider webs. Julie cut a hickory branch and I used it to knock down webs in our path but eventually the branch became a waving mass of webs and unhappy spiders. The trail worsened. The spiders worsened. And horseflies. Did I mention the horseflies? Oh, there were horseflies. You can be sure of that.

Trail4

Our only comfort was the few smashed plants in the path, evidence that someone had traveled this path before us, even if days ago. So we continued.

trail5

The path just kept on going. No sounds of water falling. No sounds of anything, really. Just more steps to take.

Trail6

15 minutes. 30 minutes. Should we turn back? Surely we are almost there. Look! A grove of tulip trees!

Trail7

The path worsened. Still, someone had been here. We continued.

trail8

The path worsened again.

Trail9

The path continued to worsen.

Trail10

At this point the trail was mixed with a trickle of water rolling down the hill. Not a waterfall. And then the trail became little more than a deer path.

Trail11

I suggested that it was a joke. They must tell us carpetbaggers to follow the trail to the waterfall. Or maybe it’s a contest. “How dumb are you?” Hidden cameras along the trail as unwitting contestants show how willing they are to overcome poison ivy, fallen trees and dense spider webs to follow a trail to nowhere. Or to big rocks by a stream at the bottom of the hill.

Trail12

And that’s where the trail ended. Or maybe we missed a turnoff uphill. I don’t know.

Trail13

There was nothing else to do. An hour into the depths of Southern Hillinois we were unable to continue.

Trail14

No waterfall.

We spent another hour trudging back up the hill, Julie’s feet wet and blistered. She even found a deer tick on her jeans. The trip uphill took seemingly forever. Was this the way we came? Had we found another path? The way down we chatted. We enjoyed ourselves. We fought off the spiders bravely. On the way back we were quiet.

A minivan full of carpetbaggers pulled up just as we emerged from the trail. They were pleased to see us but looked disappointed when we told them about the poison ivy, spiders, rough trail and complete and total lack of waterfalls.

They were looking at their maps as we left. We drove back the way we came. A mile back down the road we had crossed water in the road. There was a parking lot, a car and the sound of falling water. Not 10 feet from the road was the waterfall pictured at the top of the post and nothing to mark its presence.

Our adventures did not end there. We continued to explore Shawnee National Forest. There will be other stories for another day. I’ll end this by admitting that we noticed, as we were driving away, we could smell ourselves. Ugh.

The Spider

Child #3 (age 10) was getting ready for church recently and I heard him make an alarming noise. Not quite a scream. Not a yell. Obviously somewhat distressed.

Something bit his foot when he put his shoe on. Something the size of the baseball.

Spider

I should clarify, it didn’t bite him. He felt a pinching sensation on his toe through his sock but there were no puncture wounds.

This is a big but fairly harmless and secretive grass spider. It builds a funnel trap. Guess the shoe was a natural funnel. Dunno. But it was good times for a few minutes there.

Try not to think about this as you put your shoes on tomorrow. lol

Songs Stuck Since Childhood

Our Cow fence is built twelve steps at a time. Twelve. I count each step. Yes, I measure distance in terms of steps.

FencePosts

One…Two…Three…

And about here I get one of two songs stuck in my head. Thanks Sesame Street.

First the Pointer Sisters.

Showing my age here, eh?

How about ladybugs?

There is no escaping my childhood.

Could I Farm the Whole State?

No. I could not farm the whole state. It isn’t going to happen. It would cost something like $176 billion to buy the farmland. Besides, we are better off with a half million small farms than with one giant farm as more farmers can do more work, cast more vision and solve more problems. Break the herds and flocks listed below out to an appropriate number of farmers if you want but keep the big total listed below. That’s realistic. Let’s have some fun with one big herd today though.

We use cattle to cycle nutrients and fix carbon. To build healthy soil. They also heal riparian areas. This is accomplished by timing exposure, measuring mob density and allowing adequate plant recovery. The problem I have is I don’t have a mob. I have 60 hooves, not 60,000,000 hooves. Not yet anyway…

What would happen if we used the whole state of Illinois as a pasture? Pretend I could rent it or buy it. Work with me here.

First, let’s make room for people. We need people. People are good. More people allow us to achieve a more complete utilization of the land and resources because I can’t do it all. I need help harvesting the nuts and berries. I need help making the calculations for the jump to light speed. I need guitarists and poets and artists and carpenters. I need bakers and brewers and electricians and computer programmers. I need inventors and dreamers and deadbeats. Biographers, journalists, morticians, pastors, truckers, used car salesmen and bankers. I need overweight doctors, professors without truth and people with Facebook accounts who think they have all the answers. I need people who can manage resources efficiently and people who will gamble it all away in one roll of the dice. I need people cheering for the red team and people cheering for the blue team and people who think they are above the game. I need opportunities to serve in a community and a community to help me when I’m in trouble. So let’s leave room for the people. The cows are a tool. The dirt is the place. The people are the purpose.

Illinois has a population of 12 million. 8 million of those live in or around Chicago. People are often shocked to learn you can drive 5 hours out of Chicago and still be in Illinois. In fact, There are 37 million acres in Illinois. So let’s give everybody an acre. They don’t have to live on that acre, but we’ll reserve that land for retail, roads, recreation, housing, gardening…whatever. Everybody gets an acre. In fact, let’s reserve another 3 million acres for the unborn. Normally we, as a nation, allocate equal space for lawn and for recreational horse pasture. I may not be leaving that much cushion. You may have to buy your horse hay from Missouri.

That leaves us with 22 million acres. Awesome possum. Cool beans. We currently farm 26 million acres in Illinois so we are ahead of the game already.

In Illinois we basically need a little less than two acres per cow and her follower. That would mean we need to come up with 11 million cows (and 110,000 bulls!). But there are only a million cows in the state currently. Heck, Texas doesn’t even have 11 million cows. But we have the appropriate soil and sufficient rainfall and we would harvest something like 10 million calves each year. Basically one beef for every non-vegetarian resident. The USDA says we ate 195 pounds of meat per person in 2000 so you probably won’t be able to/shouldn’t eat the whole beef. We’ll have to sell a portion of our production outside of the state.

And 11 million is just the starting point. We have some of the best soil in the world. Right here. If we can grow 400 bu/acre corn we can surely build grasslands to support one cow per acre…or maybe just one per 1.5 acres. But let’s stick with one cow per two acres and add in sheep instead.

We can comfortably run 4 ewes per cow…so 44 million ewes. So 88 million lambs each year. 88 million. Not only do I need to gobble up a whole beef each year , I need to eat 7 lambs each year. That’s too much meat. Lamb may become the new chicken. The cheap meat. We’ll have to export some of it to Indiana and Missouri…or other states if our neighbors catch on and appropriately stock their land.

GrazingIllinois

But we aren’t finished. Imagine the mess behind the herd. We need a big-ole flock of layers to follow behind them and clean up the mess. We currently run 10 layers per cow and I think that ratio is about right. So we need to run something like 110,000,000 layers free-ranging behind the cattle. The flock may force us to rotate some grazing land into grain production seasonally but that really shouldn’t hurt our grazing total. We’ll also need some help hatching those eggs, let alone collecting and packing and selling 6 million dozen eggs every day. BTW, that’s half of the current egg production of our entire nation so maybe we should cut back our egg production…if for no other reason to lessen our grain needs. We will be grazing around 400 square miles each day with our herds and flocks so the more we distribute the materials handling the better. We should have egg-packing and distribution facilities all over the place. We could probably butcher the flocks and make canned soup and canned cat food and…whatever else while we are in Chicago each fall and they can compost the remains for sale to the millions of Chicago gardeners. We’ll pick up the new flock of 110,000,000 pullets when we pass University of Illinois. Maybe the pullet logistics could become an ongoing research program.

The flocks and herds will pass by quickly going from Jerseyville to Jacksonville in two days. One day the grass is waist-high, the next there is a carpet of grass and manure. Like sweat after a workout it only lasts a little bit then the recovery continues until the next workout. Every three to five months the herd will pass between Effingham and Olney then on past Harrisburg so we can wave at Metropolis then up again between Pinkneyville and Chester, across the flat stretching from St. Louis to Peoria to Rockford, skirting the freightened masses of Chicago who have never seen cattle before as we wind down to Champaign and back around again. Every three to five months we’ll graze, trample and manure the entire state, building inch after inch of soil on a dense fabric of roots and trampled grass blades…a blanket that cushions and protects the soil from ice, wind, sun and rain. Schools will let the children out for the day to see The Jordan herd pass by…a sight their grandparents never imagined. Letters will be written to editors complaining about the flocks of wild birds that accompany the herd migration and late pizza delivery caused by cattle crossing the road for hours. Chickens will follow behind…all 110 million of them, scratching out bugs and leaving additional manure. (How would that even be possible? Thousands of school buses converted to chicken houses driving from place to place? Maybe train cars full of chickens? Train cars full of chicken feed? Honestly, I can’t imagine the daily distribution needs.) A few days later there will be clouds of dung beetles. Deer and wild turkey and quail will graze with and behind the herd, not to mention the swallows swooping in above the herd as it grazes quietly along.

 

Newspaper

But surely we can do more with that ground. Cows appreciate shade on hot days. What if we planted rows of trees on contour? Miles and miles of diverse tree stands. Canopy layers of oak, hickory, chestnut or walnut. Lower layers of apple and cherry and filberts all on neat rows slowing the downhill flow of rainwater. Even lower layers of gooseberry and raspberry and strawberry. Black locust mixed in for nitrogen and wood products. All 12 million people in Illinois could have 50 pounds of cracked walnuts, 100 pounds of chestnuts, boxes and boxes of apples and cherries and strawberries. Of course, nobody wants all that food so we’ll have to hire people to harvest the abundance and build huge processing facilities to make brownies and High Fructose Chestnut Syrup and hard cider and applesauce and apple pie and caramel apples. Not to mention the massive squirrel and rabbit harvest…also enjoyed by the numerous birds of prey.

We would need something like one hired hand per thousand head of livestock so we’ll have at least 55,000 employees (probably on horseback) helping to manage the herd, culling old, open or injured animals, castrating young bulls and rams, keeping the mob grouped and moving. This does not count the teams that move ahead of the herds to build fence. (Not the kind of fence that subdivides the pasture for daily moves, the kind of fence that keeps the cows out of town…the houses from being smashed…and the cars from being trampled (we hope) by FIFTY-FIVE MILLION ANIMALS.) Probably another employee per thousand layers. Nor does this count their families that will accompany them on the migration amounting to a population larger than the city of Springfield. We’ll need many, many more people to help us transport, slaughter and distribute the meat. Thousands more to handle the abundance of nuts, fruit…just the raw materials. More to take those raw materials and produce finished products ranging from rawhide bones for pets to dining room tables to gooseberry pies. Think of the regulators required to keep us all safe! Think of the lawyers we’ll hire to keep us safe from the regulators!

And this is just the beginning. Remember, we set aside 15 million acres for humans. That leaves room for zucchini and tomatoes and flocks of chickens at home. Different strains of chickens…regional breeds. Maybe goats. Certainly pigs…everybody loves bacon. Pork may become that treasured annual delicacy bringing family together for harvest and celebration. Maybe one farmer in 20 farrows, allowing many others to keep a pig or two at home to make good use of uncollected tree nuts and garden waste. Maybe even home dairy. Heck, maybe small raw milk dairies to supply milk and cheese for neighbors…nevermind. Illinois doesn’t like raw milk. Sigh. Woodworking shops, welding and repair, bakeries, septic tank clean out… Heck, we’ll keep everybody so busy managing our abundance they won’t have time to write silly legislation to “fix” the world’s problems…let alone write starry-eyed, idealistic blog posts.

Do you know the difference between “riches” and “wealth”? What if I suggested rich people have an abundance of money and wealthy people have an abundance of time? How’s that sitting with you? (I’m thinking about this as I read P.G. Wodehouse.) Anyway, look man. When the herd is in your neighborhood, help us out. I’ll cut out a few head for your butchers and we’ll be back in a few months. When the herd is away, harvest the abundance of the forest. Bake a pecan pie sweetened with honey and pour a few mugs of hard cider. Sell the surplus production from your land then go fishing. No big whoop. Either you can lease me your grazing rights or you can lease space from me to plant your trees. Nobody is giving anybody anything. We all work hard. We all hold our heads up. We all become more wealthy (free time) and the money and resources we generate stay right here. You can buy that cool new techno-gadget if you want. I’m going to park my tookus under a tree near the herd and do some reading. Lamb for dinner. Again.

And what if we expanded the herd further? What if we worked with neighboring states to put together a larger migratory herd (probably herds)? Cottage industries springing up to help meet the needs of the families that stay with the herd year-round. There were somewhere north of 60 million bison ranging the plains 400 years ago….so…why not? Tens of thousands of people staying with the herd or working regionally with the herd as it passes through their area. Why not?

I’ll tell you why not. The EPA would shut it down.

Click image for source.

My goodness! How did the waterways survive before we shot all those horrible buffalo? What we need are more tractors! We need to rip the soil so the rain will wash it away. Put that stuff in the Gulf of Mexico where it belongs! By golly, God gave us a crater to fill and we’re gonna fill it! While we are at it, let’s poison the drinking water with weed sprays and bug sprays and anti-fungal sprays. Apparently cow poop in a stream and voluntary consumption of raw dairy will bring about the end of the world and don’t even mention the dead buffalo Lewis and Clark found in the Missouri River. Let’s sterilize the whole state right down to the bedrock. And it’s important that we tile the state to drain the rain away as quickly as possible too…in large part because atrazine in the ground water has become a bit of a problem. By golly, we have to feed the world and corn is the only way to do it.

So we’ll just continue on our current course. Eating corn flakes and puffed corn curls covered in corn starch cheese and drinking fizzy corn drinks and feeding corn to diarrhea-covered cattle in EPA-approved feedlots. Wasting our unhappy lives in cubicle-filled bureaucracies, out of touch with the natural world, never facing the reality of death…believing pharmacies and money can cure a lifetime of poor health choices…never accepting that the hamburger came from a beautiful living animal…and that it is OK to have mixed feelings about eating animals…that this is a discussion we can have. It’s OK to revere life…and take it carefully. Respectfully. To ensure our animals live each day with purpose. To ensure our people live each day with purpose. To save our soil for future generations. Nope. We can’t have that.

Every. Single. Morning.

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

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

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

The Return of Surplus

Being the huge fan of farm economics that I am, and being decidedly in favor of individual freedom and thinking the best of my fellow man and accepting, as I do, that the Earth is not just a place to put my stuff but is, instead, a treasure to be…erm…treasured, and because a friend recently emailed me about the questionable sanity of male bloggers with oddly disjointed posts, I offer you this bit of self-indulgence. I present to you…

The Return of Surplus (available in HD)

Surplus is coming back. Let’s return to the world of plenty. My favorite college class was taught by a long-braided hippie lady who seemingly always wore a green dress and was happy to let me be wrong about whatever as long as I could back up my position. She taught a class titled “Nature and the American Experience” or some such nonsense. (Have I ever mentioned that I have a generally negative view of college for unlicensed professions (or of gov’t licensing of professionals? (come on…at least I’m giving you something to think about.))) Anyway, this instructor, whose name has evaporated from memory (Dr.? Ms.? Jan …something?), could not have been nicer and left me with a positive impression of what a hippie person could, and in some ways should be. Julie and I aspire to be similarly accepting of others. And we don’t use shampoo. And we compost our wastes. And we have a big garden. And I have a beard…for now. And I’m generally against war…especially when the warring party considers the best defense to be a good offense. Or when “war” is practiced by hitting wedding parties with missiles. Our real-life hippie cred is way above average.

So anyway, I propose that surplus is coming back into style. It’s what the cool kids are doing. The hipsters. To be clear, I was planting trees before planting trees was cool. Not that it matters. A planted tree is a planted tree, cool or not. And my beard has nothing to do with being a hippie (I’m really a lousy hippie) and nothing to do with hunting (I’m a lousy hunter) and nothing to do with hipster culture (hipsters should laugh ironically at that) and everything to do with having been the hairiest kid in school…being called “Wolfman” at age 12 because I had the beginnings of a beard then.

How am I doing on the disjointed thing? Does this qualify as questionably sane?

There are three permaculture ethics and depending on the bent of the author writing about them you’ll see a different wording for each. The more libertarian writers (you know, leave people alone, let them do what they do as long as they don’t violate the rights of others) tend to write them this way:
1. Care for the Earth
2. Care for People
3. Return of Surplus

The more totalitarian authors (the kind who like to tell other people what is best for them…because it’s for the children) write it out this way:
1. Earth Care
2. People Care
3. Fair Share

Isn’t that nice? It rhymes and it makes us feel good! It’s fair!

Obviously I think there’s a big difference between the two. A big difference. And I’m going to pick on the kind of person who thinks the world would be better if he could just impose his will on others. If you are one of those people, I respect your opinions but I secretly think you’re a tool. If we interpret “Fair Share” as freely giving resources to others we have made Ethics 2 and 3 redundant. I believe the ethics are (or should be) distinct. Hence the “Return of Surplus” in the title.

Rather than focus on how we can feel good about giving apples away to people who don’t have apples (which may or may not be worth doing but is covered by Ethic #2, not a part of this post) we need to focus on returning surplus back into the system. Pretend it is a closed loop. A finite Earth. That when you throw plastic away it doesn’t magically go away. It just gets stored somewhere else. Forever. When you sit on your tookus doing nothing you are taking from the system without returning to it. Just converting oxygen into CO2 and food into…well, not …food…for humans. You are consuming resources and returning nothing of value.

So what do we do with our surplus plastic? I don’t know. Try not to buy stuff wrapped in plastic.

But let’s back off of the Captain Planet message and focus on the farm for a minute. The farm is a closed loop. Cows don’t produce plastic. Cows don’t eat plastic (in fact, those Arkansas tumbleweeds are quite dangerous for cows). We capture sunlight and rain while using plants and fungus to mine minerals out of the soil. Our management of the cows takes full advantage of the stored energy and nutrients while leaving a residual of plant material, manure and disturbance to enhance future forage growth. It’s all an ongoing cycle of transition from one state to the next. The only thing in true surplus is the sunlight and we try to make the most of it. There is no surplus manure. That’s food for worms and dung beetles and fly larvae. There are no surplus flies. Those are food for birds and frogs and ???. If I sell the manure, the hay, the maggots or the worms I have disrupted some portion of the cycle. Somewhat. When properly managed, the relentless onslaught of sunlight brings a level of abundance. We’ll sell surplus cattle to keep the system in balance.

We have removed – not returned – some surplus by selling cattle. So what is all this “return” nonsense?

I have a distinct lack of cash. No surplus cash is available (or ever will be…I promise!). I take surplus cattle and exchange them for needed cash. The cash is returned to the farm. Maybe in the form of fencing materials. Maybe in the form of Irish whiskey to help me cope with the lack of fencing materials. Some may think any Irish whiskey is surplus Irish whiskey. I disagree. There are things we enjoy just for the sake of enjoyment. Things that keep us on the farm. Things that make the back-breaking, heart-wrenching work more bearable. Not just booze (though that is nice) but books and comfy chairs and new boots. Things that weren’t sourced on the farm but grant us a measure of sustainability by keeping us fat and happy. Because if we weren’t fat and happy we wouldn’t be doing this. And sometimes the whiskey helps. Only sometimes. I promise. (But sometimes it really helps. A lot.)

And being fat and happy is the goal. Heck, Crevecoeur wrote about it nearly 250 years ago as he was defining an American in Letter III (A book I read in the aforementioned hippie college class at least 18 years ago):

Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. I lord religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. –This is an American.

“…fat and Frolicsome, gladly help their father”. Sweet! Men – Americans – no longer suffer from a surplus of forced free time. They are rewarded for their labor! Well, that was the American envisioned by Crèvecœur. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if that every really came to be. Or if it was and was lost. Or if America is a place or an idea. Or if it is required of an American to live in the United States. Or if the United States has become increasingly welcoming or increasingly hostile toward Americans.

So that brings us to surpluses the farm can absorb. The farm can absorb all the manure my cows can drop. No problem. The farm can absorb all the labor my wife, children and I can spare. Further, the farm can absorb all the labor I can hire.

So let’s really address surpluses. It is not outside of the scope of imagination that I could grow more apples than I could eat. More, even, than I could feed to pigs. A true surplus. I have several options available to me. First, I could press a portion of the apples to make hard cider…making the farming more bearable…and the winters warmer. Possibly leading to additional children. Bonus. But let’s imagine that I have so many apples that I can make so much hard cider I couldn’t possibly begin to drink it all. Now, like the surplus cattle, I need to move these surpluses off of the farm. Unlike cattle, surplus apples are available in small quantities. It would be entirely possible for me to trade my surplus hard cider and exchange it for something you have in small surplus. And if you own nothing I suppose you might have time in surplus. And it just so happens that my farm can absorb all the time we can throw at it. There is always more work to do!

This is radically different than charity (and we make major allowances for charity, see Ethic #2), it is radically different than “Fair Share”. It really is fair. “I have this. You have that. Would you like to trade?” That’s very different than saying, “Don’t you feel guilty that you have so much when so many have so little?” Nobody has to hang their head. Nobody is a loser. There are no greedy bastards. No guy with all the apples. No guy with all the free time. It is a mutually beneficial convergence of surpluses. My surplus apples are being returned to the farm…whatever the form! Return of surplus.

Dad was recently approached about buying hay for a woman who keeps horses. She was turned in (to the horse feeding police?) because her horses were reportedly malnourished. The vet who examined them found that one was fine but not fat (horses around here are all fat), the other was old. You know…old. As in, may be lacking teeth and having a hard time maintaining weight because it is…old. But they’re collecting hay for her anyway. Grass grows in surplus in our part of the world. Pond edges, field edges the front yard (yeah), alfalfa that couldn’t be cut because it got too cold to cure and the always present roadsides. How about this, horse lady? How about you cancel your Satellite TV, you put your horse on a lead rope and you go soak up your excess time soaking up excess forage? You, the horse and the grass will all be better off for it. I mean, if you have Satellite TV and horses you can’t possibly need a share of my production/labor/assets/whatever. That doesn’t seem fair as I have neither Satellite TV nor horse…nor desire for either. But you and your equine can achieve an equitable trade for your free time and solve your feeding issues. Or just shoot/sell the dang horses and give yourself more completely to the gods of television.

Now I have ticked off totalitarian warmongers (republican or democrat), hippies, hipsters, hunters, horse-owners, people who value sitting on their couch, people who still believe the myth of the college degree and 90% of permaculturists. How’s that for a self-indulgent, questionably sane, rambling post?

If you are interested, the books I remember from that class were:
Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches from Eighteenth-Century America
A Sand County Almanac
A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett of the State of Tennessee

Go ahead. Check those out from the library, discuss them with a group of peers and give yourself 4 imaginary credits toward a fancy piece of paper. It may help you make a lot of money someday and costs much less than similar imaginary credits from our competitors.

The Group W Bench

If you don’t get the title…well, obviously you didn’t have the same father I have. I’ll need about 30 minutes to tell you all about the 27 8×10 color glossy photographs with the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one explaining what each one was to be used as evidence against us. We’ll start with the half a ton of garbage and some friends who live in the bell tower of an old church, talk quite a bit about the draft and we’ll finish up singing “You can get anything you want…” I mean…I mean…I meeeeen I’m sittin’ here on the bench…

GroupW…eating my lunch and creating a nuisance and playin’ with the pencils and fillin’ out the forms and it’s 62 degrees outside and it will be below freezing for the next…eternity and I’ve got spring fever so bad I can hardly stand it.

Weather Forecast brought to you by wunderground.com

Weather Forecast brought to you by wunderground.com

And my dad calls. “Looks like you’ve got a calf that’s about to die.”

Well. That’s great. Shoot. Never lost a calf before. First time for everything I guess.

Now what? Now it’s 67 degrees outside, I’m stuck sittin’ here on the group W bench creating a nuisance and playing with the pencils and fillin’ out the forms and my dad says I have a sick calf.

Then my wife calls and the water line guy is there to dig. Guess what I forgot?

So I call my dad and tell him about the Group W bench and the pencils and the forms and the sick calf and the water line guy and he stops me right there and says, “Kid…You got a lot of darned gall calling me up to tell me that. What is it you want me to do about it?”

So I continue to tell him the story about the Group W bench and the created nuisance and the pencils and the forms and the rapidly changing temperature and the sick calf and he stops me right there and says, “Kid…You’re my boy. I’ll take care of it.”

Well that’s about the time my wife (who has a rare day off from watching the kids) calls to say she gave the cows a fresh tank of water with a pint of ACV and she’s on her way to get a bale of good grass hay. I suspect the calf either has been eating too much alfalfa (fresh or baled) or something fast-moving is going through the herd. One of the jerseys was unexpectedly runny for a couple of days last week. But the white calf clearly isn’t feeling well. She gets up, she eats, her ears are up but she looks a little gaunt, has been laying in manure and her rump is covered. I’ll have to keep a close eye on her but hopefully the grass hay will be just what the doctor ordered.

But here I sit on the group W bench. Not a danged thing I can do. Sigh.

Now if you’re the kind of a reader who knows about the Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement you know why I’m writing this. You might know somebody in a similar situation or you may be in a similar situation and if you’re in a situation like this there’s only one thing you can do. With feeling.

And if you have no idea what this post was about then come back tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll have good news about the white calf.

Abnormal. Not Weird.

We farm. That’s what we do. It’s not who we are. It’s not what we’re about. It’s what we do. I try to use this blog to write about what we do…not who we are. I could start a Family Blog-O-Rama if you want to read about me but I think that sounds boring. However, sometimes, in order to add meaning to what I do, I have to tell you about myself.

My name is Chris. I am abnormal. Abnormality is necessary for doing what we do. Based on peer interaction and lack of dates as an adolescent I must look abnormal but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about being. Not looking. Not acting. Being.

To be absolutely clear, I’m not weird.  “Weird” describes somebody’s uncle or that really, really hairy neighbor who mows the lawn wearing only a speedo. (I grew up near a man who mowed his grass in a red paisley speedo. Yeah.)  Not only do I actively avoid wearing a speedo under any circumstances, I don’t mow my grass. (And isn’t it weird that someone with a riding lawn mower would also own a treadmill?)

If we were normal we would be average.  Average Americans have $15,000 in credit card debt, owes $25,000 on college debt, owns 2.28 cars, a home in the suburbs and are divorced.  The average American man is 5’8″ and weighs 195 with a nearly 40″ waist.  I don’t fit that description at all. I don’t want to be average. I am not average…not normal. Abnormal. I didn’t watch football Sunday afternoon, I told cows where they could eat.

I feel safe suggesting that if you’re going to take on this whole farming thing then you’re abnormal too. “Normal” meat comes pre-cut, wrapped in plastic and is magically created moments before the grocer places it in the cooler for sale. It is absolutely abnormal (in the current era) to brine a wood surface before cutting(!) a chicken with a sharp DANGEROUS knife, let alone kill a pig in your back yard.  I know, right? It borders on weird to, like, ruin your lawn so you can, like, grow, like, broccoli or whatever.  Like, sometimes, there are, like, little green worms crawling on the broccoli!  Gross! But that’s what you do when you are abnormal.

Now, you ready for the hard part?  Even among farmers I’m abnormal.  Normal farmers don’t grow broccoli or butcher chickens. In fact, normal farmers don’t grow food – they raise commodities. They certainly don’t tell the cows where they can eat! Normal farmers play cards at the coffee shop.  Normal farmers collect big, expensive hunks of metal. Normal farmers shake their heads when they drive past my house. It is obvious that we are abnormal.

Sometimes life on the frontier can be lonely. Do it anyway. In some ways, the more abnormal (maybe even weird) your idea is, the more likely you are to succeed. However, as you are chasing down your own specific abnormality (even if it is not farming), don’t overlook the need for community.  Maybe that’s why I blog. I suspect there were some seriously crazy people out on the American frontier.  We’re not shooting for crazy.  We’re just stepping away from the herd to do things as they should be done.

So that’s what it takes. Step away from the herd. I may talk more about our own lengthy transition to farming sometime but it starts by doing something abnormal. Not weird. Maybe not even smart. Just abnormal.

So now for a hard question: What do you do when your own specific abnormality is no longer abnormal?

Dreaming of June

Look at the Blueberry plants!  Oh!  One more year and we can stop pinching the blossoms and start eating them fresh!  Can’t wait!

BlueberriesAnd it looks like the strawberries are really going to make this year.  We’ll have jam, we’ll freeze some, we’ll eat mountains of them fresh with spinach!  I mean, here it is, pretend June 1st and we’ve already eaten so many of them…

Strawberries

And the green beans!  We’ll be busy canning all July to handle the crop that’s out there.  Bush-type beans planted 8″ apart in a grid as demonstrated by Jeavons really do well.  It helps that this row received 6″ of compost and another 4″ of mulch in the last year.

GreenBeans

The potatoes are really coming on.  We’ve already hilled them twice and have high hopes that the drought will hold off this year.  Last year the drought started around June 15th and the potato plants withered quickly.  In fact, I started digging potatoes before July 1.  This year I don’t want to dig the main crop until at least August 1.  Just soon enough to plant our fall crop of broccoli in the same row but late enough that a fair portion of the potatoes will keep.

Potatoes

The rhubarb is doing well but the plants are a bit crowded.  I need to move them to a new home.  I really don’t know where to put them.  The rest of the row is just odd plantings.  Some onions, some lettuce (it’s about to bolt), some marigolds.  I may put in a little buckwheat in this row.

Rhubarb

But this year is THE year for tomatoes!  I’ve never seen anything like it.  We put down layer after layer of chicken manure, horse manure and 10″ of well-composted wood mulch last year and this year I have the best crop of tomatoes ever.  The peppers were looking a little leggy early on but they are bearing now.  The jalapenos are long and flavorful.  Takes 2 pieces of bacon to wrap one popper.  If you look carefully, you can see we planted oregano between plantings of tomato and pepper.  That kind of planting brings in a lot of wild pollinators.

Tomatoes and peppers

Well.  One day winter will pass.  One day I’ll be out working in the garden thinking, “what was so bad about winter?”  But today, looking out at a foot of snow and more falling from the sky, I’m wondering if it will ever end.  You can see a brooder in the potato picture above.  That brooder has 140 chicks in it.  I say chicks but they are nearly a month old.  They should be on pasture.  I may have to sacrifice two rows of the garden to make a pretend pasture for them…feeding them hay daily.

It is nice to have an excuse to sit down for a few days though.  You can assume I’m working when I disappear from the blog for a few days.  I have been working a lot lately.  Let me know if the snow gave you a chance to do some dreaming.

Green Acres of My Life

My father has known me for 36 years and, next to Julie, qualifies for the title of “Best Friend.”  He’s pretty well in tune with my likes and dislikes.  Dad said, “You should watch the first episode of Green Acres and write a blog post about it.”  So, Dad.  Here it is.

Now, before we get too carried away I invite you to watch it for yourself.  Julie found herself crying in laughter and sympathy with Lisa (Oliver’s wife).  Oliver’s enthusiasm and naivety mirror my own.  In fact, though we lack a hole in the floor leading to the cellar, the show hits a little too close to home.

Oliver reads the blogs of his day, USDA bulletins, every spare moment of his life.  That sounds familiar.  He spends every moment growing anything he can including mushrooms in his office desk drawer.  His job is just something he does well though mechanically and without enthusiasm.  He lacks that feeling of accomplishment, purpose and fulfillment.  That good kind of tired you get after a day of physical labor.  He says:

“A farm would give me a feeling of accomplishing something.”

and later…

“This has been the dream of my life: to buy a farm!  Move away from the city.  Plow my own fields.  Plant my own soil.  To get my hands DIRTY!  Sweat and strain to make things grow!  To join hands with you, the farmers…the backbone of our economy.”

Like Oliver, I wanted a real farm like the one I was born on.  Unlike Oliver I actually bought the one I was born on (er…well, the one my parents lived on when I was born at the hospital).  Like Oliver I bought a run-down house with sheds that are falling in on themselves, failing fences and odd bits of junk everywhere.  Unlike Oliver I wasn’t suckered into it.  Like Oliver I have a beautiful, sophisticated, thin, blonde wife.  Unlike Oliver my wife came along willingly…and doesn’t have a Hungarian accent.  Like Oliver, I bought with big, unrealistic expectations, no experience and inhuman optimism.  That optimism has been just about beaten out of me.  Maybe this year we can limit our losses to just a couple thousand dollars then turn things around to positive numbers in our 5th year.  I don’t know.  The infrastructure needs are so great.  It looks to me like Oliver just pours money into the farm every episode.  My pockets aren’t deep enough for that.  Fortunately I don’t have a Mr. Haney in my life.

Look.  I don’t have any help for you if you have decided to get your hands dirty and join the backbone of the nation.  You’ve picked a tough row to hoe.  I think we can do it (or I wouldn’t be trying) but it’s not easy.  I have to suggest that Oliver’s adjustment would have been easier if there had been no house at all…if he had only had the sense to send Mr. Haney packing then take a match to the empty house at the beginning of episode 2 and build new.  My land itself is a fixer-upper.  I don’t have time to deal with the house issues.  Neither does Oliver.  I like to encourage my farmers that they can succeed.  You can.  But try not to put yourself behind the 8 ball from the beginning just because you were born somewhere.

Channeling Lisa, my wife, lovely as ever, upon viewing the farm as we return from a business trip to Florida, looks at me from the passenger seat and says, “Let’s go back.”

Green Acres offers a response, “Keep Smiling.”

If you’re going to do this, Keep Smiling.