Pastured Puppies

The character flaws for which I deserve criticism are many. As a relatively new, relatively young farmer, criticism and its cousin, advice, solicited or not, are industry hazards that I must accept with whatever grace I can muster. I can tolerate criticism of my pig management from an older customer that “had a pig once as a kid” and tolerate the ubiquitous advice on corn and soy in feed from well intentioned customers who deserve praise for their knowledge of the issues and desire for a better system, but may be at a deficit when it comes to feed sourcing and pricing. Moreover, outside of these minor irritations, I regularly receive admonishment, both well intentioned and well deserved from habits ranging from my propensity for lateness to my insistence on doing things the “hard way” for as long as possible to the general disarray of both my house and the portion of my property not dedicated to farming. However, I will here now publicly defend myself against what I find to be one of the more surprising pieces of recurring criticism in my life: my practice of taking in stray dogs.

 

The number of stray dogs, whether escaped or dumped by owners, in our neck of the woods astonishes me. It is as if every person who has ever told a child that his or her beloved dog “went to live ona farm upstate” was dropped off on our road. To date, Claire and I have taken in about 12 of these (13 if you count city finds). In 2.5 years in Saulsbury, that amounts to one dog every three months. I discovered our first three, Australian cattle dog mixes that we called June, Loretta, and EmmieLou dumped in a culvert in the first few months of our arrival. Our most recent, Eddie, a yellow lab mix, left over Memorial Day weekend. During this period, we have come in for some unexpected criticism. These comments have ranged from the impractical (and potentially dangerous with all the deer around), “just look away” to the painfully obvious, “you can’t save them all.” Most of these criticisms have come at times where we sought to vent, sought financial help, or asked assistance in fostering (the latter two practices we’ve ceased completely at this point). I should stress that these were not offhand jokes, but contained a real dissatisfaction with our inability to pass on taking in a stray dog.

There’s a concept that I teach in ethics classes called the “Acts/Ommissions” distinction, which is way easier to understand than it sounds. A central problem of ethical theory is the question of whether we are as responsible for our actions as our failures to act. In philosophy we often illustrate this question with a type of hypothetical called a “trolley problem.” For example, you are (for some reason) taking a walk on a train track. You notice a train is barreling down the track towards a group of people. Youhappen to be near a switch. If you flip the switch it will divert the train onto a side track where there is only one person (or sometimes a car, but that’s not important right now). What should you do (no, you can’t shout at them, they can’t hear you. And yes, you are certain that things will work out this way)? Most folks say flip the switch. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” I quote from The Wrath of Khan after 90% of my students pick this option.

There is, of course, a way out. Maybe it’s important that I’m not driving the train. It’s not my fault that the train is speeding and there are folks on the track. If you are the one student that thinks this, you have made use of the Acts/Omissions distinction. That is, you think (quite plausibly) that we are not as responsible for our failures to act as we are for our actions themselves. Our aforementioned critics seem to make heavy use of this concept. It is, after all, not our fault these dogs have been dumped, lost, or escaped. Truly, we cannot afford the time or vet bills to care for these creatures. It is regrettable that they are sad and hungry. But, it is someone else’s responsibility.

 

As indicated by my predilection for intervening, I do not agree with this line of thinking. I know from experience there are three basic alternatives when there is a stray about that can be helped:

 

  • Help it- accept the financial burden, the extra stress, and the mess in your house
  • Leave it be- while there is a minute chance of another farmer taking this animal in, the most likely outcome will be a slow painful death from starvation or predation
  • Kill it- This can be accomplished by weapon or by taking it to the local shelter

 

Option number two is the one that I simply cannot stomach. Wishful thinking aside, a stray dog’s most likely fate will be starvation or predation. I simply cannot abide a slow painful death for an animal. I fail to see how it makes sense to try to raise meat animals ethically, but fail to extend that humane treatment to a stray. Additionally, a hungry dog is highly likely to make a meal of your livestock (or someone else’s livestock) prior to its demise. Trust me, we lost 80 chickens in one afternoon to two stray dogs that were hungry enough to go through an electric fence.

 

What about option three? A quick death by an experienced hand is certainly preferable to a slow painful one withthe potential to cause the farmer problems in the meantime. It is often suggested that we ought to choose this option. Folks that encourage option number three have almost universally never shot a dog themselves. I have[1]. For me, there is something cosmically wrong with this option. Maybe it’s 19,000-30,000[2] of domestication and co-evolution hardwired into me. Maybe, its coming in from the field to snuggle Lily, our bloodhound, on the couch and knowing that if we had been 15 minutes late picking her up when she wandered into our field, we could have found her murdering our chickens instead of asking if she could come live with us.

Perhaps we are unrealistic and naïve. Perhaps, we’ll overspend helping dogs and ruin our business. Our critics, after all, have been correct in many ways. We didn’t have the time. We didn’t have the money. But, we did it anyway.

And we’ll do it again.

 

[1] At the aforementioned 80 chicken massacre

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/06/the-origin-of-dogs/484976/

Murderer

Disclaimer– Some folks may want to give this post a miss. This post contains fairly graphic descriptions of animal death. I have not spared many details in my description of killing animals on the farm (both processing and euthanizing). I do this not for shock value or because I’ve grown calloused, but because I want to present a real picture of what this work is like. Those of us that choose to eat meat have a responsibility to have an honest image of everything entailed.

 

Mornings on a farm are mixed blessings, Friday mornings more so than any other day. By Friday, I am exhausted. Non-farmers may not fully grasp what “exhausted” means to a farmer. I have a tension headache. Without fail. Every Friday. If I’m lucky and the weather has been properly distributed (not generally the case) I have worked four 12-16 hour days straight. On Wednesday or Thursday most of the year, I cap off 12 hours with a 4.5 hour teaching gig. If rain is forecasted for any day of the week, I have also worked 5-8 hours minimum (plus chores) the previous Sunday (my “day off”). Still, Friday mornings are a treat. I drink coffee and allow my dogs to break the cool stillness of the morning by stirring up the chickens and ducks while I take my time setting out feed and water, spending a few extra minutes with each set of animals.

 

On one lovely March morning (sunny and 45), I took my time examining our “Freedom Ranger” broilers, doing a quick spot health check as I moved our three 10×10 pasture pens by hand. I took in the classic bucolic scene of our chubby, but healthy meat birds scratching and basking in the sun, only to notice that one chicken was moving with his wings rather than his legs, one of which had to be broken. At this point, I had to make a decision. To wait or to act? A step forward, a deep breath, and a deft flick of the wrist. In a few seconds everything changes.

Continue reading Murderer

Tom Sawyerin’ It

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it…he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do…There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.” –from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

 

While I realize he is probably quite busy, I humbly beseech Pope Francis to consider my request. I would like to suggest that Tom Sawyer be named the patron saint of sustainable farmers, complete with a feast day and a religious order. For as a sustainable farmer, I believe I already venerate him with my work and my spirit. True, farmers have a regular pantheon from which to choose already– Saint Francis (animals), Saint Isidore the Laborer (laborers/farmers), Saint Fiacre (gardeners)—but there’s something about the labor intensive work of the small farmer that cries out for a Saint Tom Sawyer.

Like any other good PBS watching smartypants of my generation, my familiarity with the adventures of Tom Sawyer (and of course, his compatriot Huckleberry Finn) comes not from being assigned the text in middle school, but from the PBS program Wishbone[1]. I recently revisited the text (again not by reading it but by listening to Nick Offerman, of Parks and Recreation fame, read it via Audible.com) and much like my 11 year-old self was filled with mirth as Tom cleverly tricked his friends into whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence. For those of you who haven’t visited this story lately, Tom not only convinces them to do his work by initially enticing them with the suggestion that whitewashing is a rare opportunity indeed, “I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?” Getting a nibble at this bait, he hooks them by claiming that such work as this is much too delicate and skilled for the likes of them. He proceeds in this manner not only to have his companions do his work for him, but they actually pay him for it, albeit with “twelve marbles, part of a jews-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spool cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, six fire-crackers, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar- but no dog- the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated old window sash.” I’m not sure of the monetary equivalent adjusted for inflation, but he made a fortune to be certain.

Part of the comedy of this scene, of course, is based in dramatic irony. The reader knows what is happening- “how could they be so stupid!”- while the characters do not sense Tom’s scheme. However, Twain being the comical genius that he was throws this dramatic irony back at the reader by stepping away from the narrative and drawing attention to the ways in which we fall into the same patters all the time,

“He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it…he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do…There are wealthy gentlemen in England who drive four-horse passenger coaches twenty or thirty miles on a daily line, in the summer, because the privilege costs them considerable money; but if they were offered wages for the service, that would turn it into work and then they would resign.”

 

For this, I humbly suggest, the Tom Sawyer is the perfect mascot for the small, sustainable farmer, and much like Twain, I shall here explain the joke. It strikes me that we, as small farmers, engage in this behavior all of the time. That is, what we as farmers see as work—processing chickens, planting a row, rotating animals, etc—is often viewed as recreation for a large number of city-dwellers. We’ve even given a name—agritourism—to the concept of having folks pay us to do our work. I will admit to being gleefully surprised by the regular comment, “let us know when you are going to process chickens, we’d love to come out and help” at the farmers market. I have to hold myself back slightly from shouting, “YES, PLEASE HELP ME!,” thus betraying my real intentions. After all, who wouldn’t want to get up early on Sunday to execute, eviscerate, and bag chickens with only lunch, beer, and a fresh chicken as payment?

Of course, I am being a bit facetious here. While the folks that help us on the farm undoubtedly do so in part to recreate, there is clearly something much deeper going on. These folks want to reorient themselves in a fast-paced world that separates them from the visceral realities of food production and the outdoors. They also do so because they are our friends and care about both our success and their food system. There really is something about the labor of the body that refreshes and renews that is special. After all, it was these sorts of attempts to reconnect with our own food that led Claire and I down the rabbit hole into full-time farm madness. Still, in these sorts of scenarios, when I find that everyone else’s hands are moving and I am merely “supervising,” I cannot help but be reminded of my new patron saint. I can only hope that, unlike Tom and Huck, my luck will avoid that dramatic turn that catches me out and finally gets me into real trouble for these schemes.

[1] For those of you unfamiliar with Wishbone, it was an afterschool educational program that featured a Jack Russell terrier reenacting classic literature (with an otherwise human cast).

Beauty and Chaos Stand Together

 

-By Claire DuFresne

So often I am asked “how” I do it. For those of you who don’t already know, I work as a 6th grade Reading teacher at a wonderful local charter school in Memphis, an hour drive from the farm. I am “on stage” as a teacher from 7:30 am until 4:30pm plus a minimum of an hour and half of wiggle room around that for prep. I help Chris run the farm, which is more than just a job or a hobby, it is a way of life in our kitchen, and living room, and my poor little SUV (emphasis on the “U”). Weekends are for two-person farm work, cleaning, cooking, and, on good days, grading. This is not easy to do. However, the “how” is the easy part. You just do it. You see something that needs to be done, and then you do it. Easy peasy. The “why” is key, though, to finding the energy for the “how.” If I do not have a compelling reason to do something, if I don’t understand the need for something to be done, then I don’t want to do it, or I won’t even recognize that it needs to be done. Because I recognize that if a student thinks that the teacher cares about her, she performs better academically, and, ideally, she plays a more prominent role in her own self-determination, I bother to ask about her new kitten that she got for Christmas. Because I recognize the importance of my participation both as a consumer and producer in the food system to myself as an individual as well as to the well-being of my human, and otherwise, community, I come home to do physically demanding chores, in the dark, after a 10- hour workday as a middle school teacher.

I am a Venn diagram of a person. In one extreme, I revel in discussing the finer points of vocabulary acquisition while on the other the various and graphic joys and pains of animal husbandry. I live my balance in the middle. I am forever chasing the retreating wil-o-wisp of balance.

 

My twin passions of farming and teaching both have taught me that things that I used to think were important just aren’t. I used to dream of sitting sipping tea in a clean, well-decorated living room, but I have discovered that it’s way more fun to sit on our usually dirty and cluttered back porch while watching the dogs romp and listening to the birds sing. When I am more tired than I thought possible, when “tired” is so sadly inadequate a word to describe how I am feeling, I notice the birds singing on a warm starry night. When all of my patience has been wrung out of me like so much water from a damp rag, a student runs across the classroom to tell me that the snails, Gary and Turbo, have had a baby. And I am immediately back, refreshed, even if for a brief spell. These passions of mine may be what drains me, but they are also what sustains me.

 

My students teach me how to be patient and that everyone deserves a second (and fifteenth) chance to make a positive choice. They teach me to never take anything for granted. They teach me how lucky I have been in my life.

 

And what does nature teach me? Patience and humility. Farming reminds me daily that I am like I am because you are like you are. (For more on that I highly recommend Thich Nhat Hanh’s text Peace is Every Step.) I am not the most important creature, and I am forever responsible for everything that goes on in my world. Nature teaches me to stand back, observe a situation, then act. Ducks herd differently than goats, than chickens, than turkeys, than pigs, who just don’t. Success is entirely dependent on respect for the particular quirks of the animal in question. If I want them to do something, I have to convince them that it was their idea. Nature teaches me that small things are amazing and beautiful. The woods are as stunning in the Winter as they are in Spring, and Summer, and Fall.

 

When I tell students that I am also a farmer, they don’t believe me until I show them pictures, and even then, they’re dubious until some of them visit the farm and come back with tales of giant pigs and dogs. When I tell people who only know me through Loch Holland that I’m also a teacher, they look at me as though surely they must have misunderstood. Yet I do not find my worlds to be opposed but, rather, complementary. It’s not the one or the other that makes life special, it’s the combination that’s novel: the magic of the first French fry dipped into a Frosty – the first pickle and ice cream eureka. My good friend Jonathan once remarked with a sigh, while standing in his driveway shortly after sunset, that this was called the “blue hour.” It is the visibly stunning, but often overlooked, time that is not quite night but not quite day. It models the marvelous transition, and the beauty of not quite being entirely one thing. It’s only a temporary state, though, just like all the best things. I keep up, as best I can, the balance of teaching and farming, because it is delicious a combination and a constantly dynamic and beautiful transition.

 

So I keep moving. I keep trying. Life is terrible, wonderful, horrifying, beautiful, exhausting, rejuvenating. In short, it’s everything all at once. I drink from the firehose, a sentiment borrowed from my equally busy brother, and I’m not sure I could have it any other way. May it never be said that I lived a long and peaceful life sipping tea in my clean, well-decorated living room. I’d rather drown in the firehose than dehydrate lapping at a trickle of life crawling past.

A Dispatch from the Divide (Part 3 of 3)

Much airtime has been given over to the suggestion that if we, as a society, would just learn to argue more civilly, things would be better. Congress would compromise, we’d get through awkward Thanksgiving dinners, and the world would be a better place. My experience as a teacher and as a farmer suggest otherwise. Civil disagreement and compromise are not a function of command of language and rhetorical strategy, but they are reflections–good or bad– of our attitudes towards one another. Students do not learn civil disagreement because you give them good argumentative strategies. You teach them to disagree civilly by asking them to work together on common projects. When they come (or are forced) to rely on one another, they learn to respect each other as individuals. That mutual reliance breeds respect and allows for the possibility of civil engagement over difficult issues.

I wonder whether this diagnosis applies to our cultural and political divide. I have learned to respect and am learning to disagree civilly with my conservative neighbors because I first came to rely on them. I needed them, whether to unstick my much too small Toyota Tacoma from a muddy field, or to shelter me under threat of tornado, or to loan me assets even though I might break them. Likewise, I like to think they came to respect my socialist environmentalist pseudo bohemian farming style because they came to rely on me to check on a sick neighbor or offer the strength of my arms (such as it is) when needed. That reliance bred respect. That respect bred affection. I sincerely believe my life is enhanced when I engage with and am challenged by these folks that two years ago seemed quite foreign to me. I am hopeful that I have challenged them in ways similar.

I would not deign to suggest that all it takes to overcome our divisions is to go out and lend a hand to your neighbor once in a while. And, I am keenly aware that my analysis is also limited by my white, anglo-saxon, protestant maleness in this equation. But, the fact that we no longer view those we disagree with as necessary or valuable, does seem to me close to the heart of the issue (maybe the lungs?). That our default mode is to see those on the other side of the divide as unnecessary burdens to progress disturbs me greatly[1]. I am not only fearful of the social consequences, but our failure to recognize our interdependence is a true failure of imagination. That failure of imagination is reflected in the political leaders we elect. There haven’t been more than a handful of American political leaders that have explicitly recognized the interrelation of the problems of the city and the country, of “red and blue” America since Henry Wallace. As Secretary of Agriculture during the New Deal he noticed that there just might be a relationship between rural and urban poverty and crafted the Farm Bill to try to address both. His insistence that all men and women of all races were equal, that the fate of urban and rural peoples were inextricably linked, and that the health of our people and economy was linked to the health of the land was greeted as a threat by both sides of the political divide of that time. Among our current political leaders and in the news media, the dearth of such voices speaks for itself.

Let me be clear, I am not suggesting that the “truth” or the best set of policies comes from the “middle” of the political spectrum. This is not a call to moderation. But, I am suggesting that the fate of the city and the country are intertwined and that those political leaders that suggest otherwise are either shortsighted or have something to gain by keeping us divided. Finally, as I’ve tried to find some solid footing amidst our recent political turmoil and to come to terms with my own place amidst this division, it strikes me that those of us who find ourselves navigating both sides of the divide[2] have a special responsibility to accept the uncomfortable work of attempting to bridge it. Quite frankly, this sounds more exhausting than even the most backbreaking farm work. But, as any good farmer will tell you, you have to do the work that needs doing, not necessarily the work that you want or planned to do.

 

[1] Wendell Berry alludes to the consequences of this mentality much more eloquently in his essay “What are People For?”

[2] Especially those of us of privilege that are unlikely to find ourselves under threat over the next four years

A Dispatch from the Divide (Part 2 of 3)

While my first given reason for posting this lengthy political piece is largely selfish (that I find the political to be inescapable), I hope that my second reason adds something small to what purports to pass for our national political conversation. I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of living on both sides of our political divide. I am a leftist living in rightwing America. I am a liberal-tree hugging-communist manifesto owning- snowflake academic by night- hippy dippy farmer living in the gun toting- God-fearing- Trump supporting heart of the rural southeast.

Since November 8, this juxtaposition has been a daily reality on and off the farm. This is Trump country. Many, though not all, of my neighbors voted for President Trump, and these neighbors are just the type of folks that he has pledged to help. They are not a homogenous group. Some of them are very poor, unemployed or underemployed. They believe that Donald Trump will help them. Some of them are wealthy, retirees that wanted a piece of the country. Others are farmers that have been savvy enough to survive the exodus of rural people to cities and the concentration of farmland and farm jobs into just a few hands. They believe that a President Trump will be friendly to their business interests and take care of crime, which is shockingly high in our county. Many of them believe in “traditional family values,” some in libertarian freedom and small government. Some want to “live and let live.” And, yes, some others are motivated in no small part by racism and xenophobia. These latter casually drop racial epithets with an ease that can only come through practice, and look to a newcomer’s face to see if it will tell which side they are on.

 

While I live in rural, conservative America, we sell our products primarily in Memphis, with its predominantly center-left populace. Our customers include an overlapping mix of white middle-class liberals, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, academics, and environmentalists. I haven’t done a scientific study, but I think it is safe to say that women make up more than 50% of those who shop at our farmers market booth. There is a fair smattering of folks that would identify as conservatives, but they are the minority when it comes to our customer base.

So, weekly, I make the journey from a part of the country holding out great hope for the Trump presidency to an enclave of Memphis genuinely fearful of what the next four years will bring. Navigating this divide has been a source of anxiety over the past month. How do I express my opinions (whether at the market or online) in a way that is cathartic and honest while maintaining the relationships I value deeply in my community? How do I respond to racist language that has become normalized in my community, knowing those using that language may be a literal lifesaver during the next storm? When customers demonize and caricature “the rednecks” that voted Trump into office, do I try to inject nuance into their life?

Let me be clear, I do not mean to suggest that there is a moral equivalency among these questions. Moreover, I am fully aware that my anxiety over these questions pales in comparison to the anxiety felt by those living under fear of deportation, of those who stand to lose their right to choose, or of those who will disproportionately bear the burden of a “law and order” society. But it has become apparent to me that the opportunity to navigate two sides of a very divided society puts me in a unique position. I still do not believe that I have much to offer in terms of healing this divide. But, while I may not be able to offer much in the way of diagnosis and cure, I think I can help treat one or two of the symptoms.

 

…but that will have to wait at least one more week. Part 3 will be posted around lunch time next Friday.

A Dispatch from the Divide (Part 1 of 3)

Okay, let’s get political. For weeks, I have steered my attention futilely towards what I believe will be a very entertaining blog post inspired by my recent rediscovery of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. During the week, I structure these posts in my head while moving fences, feeding animals, and constructing and refurbishing animal housing. Working with my hands allows my mind to wander, to turn over ideas and examine them from all angles, to reflect on things I’ve read, or just to notice something special in the woods that might serve as a MacGuffin for some week’s writing. Nick Offerman’s very entertaining reading of Twain’s classic is perfect for this purpose.

However, sitting down to write these past few Fridays, that post won’t be written. So, if for no other reason than to free up my brain, I am going to write what has really been on my mind: the recent transition of power to President Trump and the social, political, and emotional turmoil that has followed. As I write, I am conscious that I have little, if anything, to gain by publishing such an essay. First, mixing business and politics is potentially detrimental to my farm business. Second, and more importantly, I barely have a coherent set of thoughts, let alone any wisdom on the matter. Moreover, the relevant stories set on my farm, cannot be told without incriminating neighbors, none of whom has consented to their telling.

Wendell Berry could write this kind of essay. With eloquence, tact, and precision he would identify the root of our current cultural divide, giving credence to the very human needs underlying all of our political motivations and ambitions. He could tell us the truth and hold the powerful accountable, while still demonstrating the ways in which we continue to share a common set of goals and ideals.

Joel Salatin also might be able to write this essay, his unflinching Christian conservatism, his unyielding environmentalism, and his goofy libertarianism bringing all sides to attention. Plus, he would make us laugh.

Me, though, I lack both the literary and emotional capacity to speak commandingly on this subject. But, I am going to try anyway. There are at least two reasons for this. First, I have come to the conclusion that farming is inherently political. Ignore the diverse historical examples of this (the Grange, the Zapatistas, the back to the land movement, Navdanya). Ignore the consequences that immigration policy, the farm bill, and international trade policy will have on farmers large and small. Farming is political for me. I suspect there is a pervasive caricature in many quarters of the farmer as simple: the farmer that is concerned only with the seasons, the amount of daylight, rainfall, and the work of the body. This farmer is somehow apart from the rest of the world. Kristin Kimball describes her husband Mark in these terms in The Dirty Life. Mark doesn’t read or watch the news. He is somehow above it because he has unlocked some secret to happiness through farming. Tolkien seems to have much the same thing in mind, at least in the beginning of The Lord of the Rings, when he describes the Shire, “Hobbits have been living and farming in the four farthings of the Shire for many hundreds of years. Quite content to ignore and be ignored by the world of the Big Folk.” This ideal probably underlies most farmers to one degree or another, and I know more than one farmer who would self-describe exclusively in this manner.

For as many country folk that value country life for its seclusion from problems of cities and of the greater world, there are folks like me that came to farming not to escape the world, but to respond to it. That is, for many of us, farming is a political act. I did not choose sustainable farming because it is glamorous or lucrative or simple. I put in the sweaty, often backbreaking work because I hope that I am, in a small way, contributing to something vital. I want to do my small part to create a system where we can produce food sustainably, in a way the sequesters carbon, rebuilds soil, treats animals and workers with dignity, that brings people together, and rebuilds communities. Others might be motivated by our many public health crises, libertarian self-reliance and good honest work, or through a religious vocation. I heard Joel Salatin say once that “farms are merely reflections of the farmer.” If he is correct, for better or for worse, my politics are an inherent part of my farm.

 


I want to thank Emily Holmes for editing this post and for helping me to organize my thoughts on this subject in a fair, honest manner.

Goodnight Neverland

 

Every night I make a list. I star the necessary, place tentative question marks next to the aspirational, and mark routine tasks with good old-fashioned dashes. With that, I put my mind at ease, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow is planned. I have succeeded in completing exactly three of these daily lists. Yesterday’s list was short, but seemed destined to meet the fate of more than seven hundred other similar lists…because pigs do not care about my plans.

Continue reading Goodnight Neverland

The Siren Songs of August

It’s finally over, and things are better. Not perfect, but better.

 

August, in the Midsouth, is universally reviled by farmers. The heat, though no worse than much of June or July, wears out the body and begins to play tricks on the mind. June and July might break heat records, but their days are longer, allowing a farmer to be in the field by 5:00 and out by the time the heat becomes unbearable. Not so with August. The loss of just one hour on each end of each day provides unbearable dynamic wherein one works more hours in the heat, and accomplishes less. This dynamic coupled with cumulative nature of heat exhaustion (and you can feel every hot day deep in your bones by this point in the year) makes for some unhappy sailing. It is at this point in the year where I, along with many other farmers begin to hear siren songs.

I hear them clearly, those songs meant to throw you off of your course “your LSAT scores may still be good, doesn’t law school sound like a good plan right about now?…The vet may need an assistant that works well with farm animals. You could even keep some of your own for fun!…You could always go back and do your PhD. You might want to apply to schools in the UK before Brexit changes immigration policies…Shouldn’t you really be using your Spanish more?…the grocery store is hiring…”

At the farmers market, each of us in turn plays Circe to another, “you cannot make decisions in August” ; “write it down and come back to it in November.” I suspect that we attempt to reassure ourselves sometimes more than our neighbors. This year, at least, I know the sirens for what they are. Only shipwreck that way. But, it remains difficult to stay tied to your mast. Lacking beeswax to fill my ears as had Odysseus’ men, I settled for The Game of Thrones books from Audible.com and “philosophy bites” podcasts played loudly in my headphones as I fooled with fences in 100-degree heat and 80% humidity. And so, I kept on sailing.

 

This morning, I walked outside and the world was changed, the weather confirming what the calendar promised: August is finished. Certainly, there will be further hardships and tests before the year is over—bows to string and pigs to move—but at least I find myself back on solid ground.

A Grief Deferred

 

IMG_0914

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program…I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.” –C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.

 

I lost a goat a few weeks ago. It is likely unwise to write this reflection at this moment. The pain of loss is too recent. Lacking appropriate distance, I’ll render this post more catharsis than measured exploration. So it goes[1].

“Devastated” is the closest word I can find to describe my feelings, but that word doesn’t quite capture it. Devastation, in this case, would seemingly imply irreparable harm to our farming project or at least the complete destruction of our goat herd. Thankfully, neither is the case. In eighteen months we’ve been through plenty, and the sense that tragedy could cause us to quit has long passed. But, this hurts.

We say, “they aren’t pets,” and that is true. They may not be pets, but you cannot help but to get attached. After all, why would we work so hard for so little if we did not genuinely love animals? We don’t love animals in the abstract, but direct this love towards particular individuals[2]. Every farmer I know has at least one of these stories: the sheep that you break the “no vets” rule for; the pig with some endearing quirk that you know you’ll miss come processing day; or the goat intended for sale or slaughter that you decide to keep for breeding instead. This will be the animal that gets sick or hurt, and Crystal was one of those animals. She did not fit into our farming ideology, but I got hopelessly attached. Not only did she kid twin does with magical consistency and produce lots of high quality milk, but she was a damn good mother and a steady herd leader. Sure, she seemed to need attention more than the others and had a frustrating appetite for hay over forage, but she was gentle and affectionate towards me. I, of course, am a pushover.

To capture the loss of one of these “special ones” is difficult. It is part grief at losing a vibrant, unique creature with which you’ve formed a bond, part guilt at failing to protect or heal her. Factor in the chaos of being forced to stray from a rigid routine to deal with the crisis, the need to protect the rest of the farm, and the cold, hard economic impact to the farm (and the shame at the realization of the importance of that reality), and you begin to form a coherent picture of this grief.

For me, though, the single most energy sapping and morale sucking aspect of this loss is the fact that I cannot grieve. Not now. The rest of the herd needs preventative medicine, and there are hundreds of mouths that must be fed. The farm does not grant personal leave. So, I’ll add “grieve” to my fall chore list, pick up a bucket of water and a bag of feed, and move about my business. You can cry and move fences simultaneously, the opinions of the loggers across the fence line be damned.

[1] Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse 5.

[2] I borrowed this language from Cornel West, who frequently makes this type of distinction.