butter working

Behold our wonderful butter paddle, replacing the wooden spoon we have used heretofore:  IMG_5835We are beholden to our friend Jake at Riverwood Trading Co. for this custom paddle. He had us draw him an outline on the back of his schedule for the Mother Earth News Fair in Burlington, VT, where he and his beautiful partner Desiree kept busy for three days selling all kinds of wooden kitchen implements, then went home and made a bunch of them, brought them to the KS fair and let me handle them all and determine which fit my hand best.  All the dairywomen in the house prefer it to anything we’ve used before; we refer you to Riverwood if you think it looks like it would work for you.  Jake and Des own Fallen Aspen farm in western PA, where they raise pastured pigs, cows, sheep, chickens and rabbits, and with Jake’s parents Gregg and Deb Kristophel operate the Trading Co.  Look them up!


grazing in snow

It’s not that we’re necessarily getting more snow than we’re used to, but that it’s laying longer; the result is that more thought must go into each day’s decisions about grass and grazing.

IMG_4641Not only must we consider the condition of the standing grass (‘stockpiled forage’) and the depth of snow on top of it; the quality of the snow itself, over and above quantity, comes into play.  What kind of snow is it? — and how long has it been here?  turn out to be significant questions as well.

Any amount of powder snow may be brushed aside with a cow’s muzzle (while horses and sheep scrape through the snow with their hooves, cows — ours, at least — push it with their noses), but any more than a thin coat of ice on top of the snow will make for reluctant grazing.  Nevertheless, if that’s what’s for dinner you can serve it, and hungry cows will, if they’re clear that you aren’t going to give in and fetch a few bales, get their noses down and have at it.  Wherever their feet have already broken the crust they’ll begin foraging, and move out from that spot to graze more widely.  Thicker ice is a real barrier to grazing — even walking, if the ice is thick enough; a skim of ice on top of snow will cut a cow’s shins, not dangerously, but enough to make them unhappy.  They’ll huddle together, trampling a perimeter beyond which they will be reluctant to go.

IMG_4733Slush is yet another matter.  If it’s not too thick — half an inch seems to be about the limit — our cows will be philosophical about eating iced forage; beyond that the trouble may not be worth the reward.  But slush has another effect on winter foraging, since it packs down wherever it is stepped on and traps the grass underneath, then freezes.  When the snow melts this grass will be pressed down to the soil, where it’s hardly accessible to bovine tongues and will in any case rot quickly, adding to the soil carbon but no longer available as forage.  So slushy paddocks have to be calculated to allow a percentage, and not a small one, for waste; which allowance has repercussions in the form of potential shortage down the season.


bird dog

Look what Beowulf did in defense of the farm ducks.  

We are really excited about giving this whole-day workshop on holistic farming for the Organic Growers School and Living Web Farm in North Carolina; first, because the topic is so close to our hearts, and secondly because Appalachia is such a wonderful region for just this kind of farming, and has a history and culture built from this kind of farming.  The small, regenerative, independent farm fits naturally into our spring- and stream-fed hills, creek bottoms and valleys;  methods of permaculture and pastoralism let us become contributors to local health and abundance.  If you’re in the area, think about coming out to hear some great speakers and meet hundreds of holistic farmers!

What are we farming for?  The question of where viability lies for the small farm is one that is hardly being addressed today, possibly because we don’t realize it’s a question.  Culturally, we have almost lost the knowledge that our needs can be met without passing through the medium of cash exchange.  The impulse that is moving many people (‘many’ — relative term; let’s say, rather:  big number; small percentage of total population) to want to shift our dependence from an industrial-mechanical model to a soil-plant-and-or-animal model does not necessarily deprogram our commerce-trained images of provision.   What that means, as we see it, and in plain language, is that often when people think they want to farm, they have two different images in their minds, and only a vague notion of how the two fit together – or whether they are even compatible.

Like this:  we say we want to farm, and with the word ‘farm’ come images into our minds of baby animals, and lettuce seedlings luminous in black soil, and blue sky and white clouds, and a basket full of brown eggs — you get the picture; while somewhere else in our minds — and with the presumption that there is a connection — we are checking off the box that keeps an eye on our bank balance and credit rating and Amazon Prime account.  We want a life other than the one we have now, one meshed into the natural world – that part is clear – but persistently, to our modern industrial minds, the necessities of that life, any life, come shrink-wrapped and with a UPC code.  That is, we buy them.  ‘I want to be a country person’ means, because we don’t know it can mean anything else, ‘I want to live in the country and do nature-things and identify myself as a nature-person, and pay my bills from that narrative.’  That consequent to our change of lifestyle some or many of our bills should go away, or how they should go away, seldom crosses our minds.


Don’t get us wrong.  Kudos to the guys who can import compost and water and seeds on an acre or two of land somewhere within an hour of a prosperous city, use those materials to grow excellent produce for direct-marketing to city plates, and make fifty thousand dollars or so a year thereby; we honor you.  You are doing a good thing and a meaningful one, and we’re glad someone is out there doing it.  May there be many more of these, and may petro-derived vegetables become a thing of the past.


But – and here is the nub of our thought – but – for the sake of clarity, and that we may all know what we are wishing for when we find ourselves with an irrepressible itch to get out of town and get our hands dirty, let’s acknowledge a distinction between building an imports/exports business around nutrients conversion – compost/soil amendments/seeds/pumped water into organic vegetables (milk, eggs, meat) for cash exchange — and building a life and a lifestyle around a place, ecology, and community of plants and animals and people.   Growing good food without chemicals in a healthy compost and receiving just remuneration for that congenial and exciting task, such that you can afford to pay your bills, including – and well do you deserve it –buying good organic meat, dairy and eggs from other folk with similar methods and values, is a great good.  It is not the same thing, however, as settling down in a place and becoming part of its living community such that that place and that community, complementary to your respectful, attentive cooperation and care, feed, warm, teach and make you at home there, thus meeting your most basic needs directly and so removing them from the realm of cash provision.    Because in the first instance you are still buying most of your necessities, so you need your organic growing to turn a tidy profit.  In the second instance, your plant/animal/human/soil community is supplying many, even most, of your needs, so your cash requirements go down, and can be satisfied with an expenditure of less time.  There’s farming, and there’s farming.



Which is not to say that there is not some state that combines the two:  growing your own food and also supplying your need for cash from farm activities.  A mature, ecologically whole farm can, usually does, generate nutrients beyond what is necessary for abundance on the farm, and it is these nutrients that have traditionally supplied export.  But if from the outset we fail to see the distinction between these two things which are both called ‘farming’, we may easily end up chasing one half of the picture and wondering why the other is getting away from us.

Here’s some of what we do on winter evenings:

long, slow projects;

warm, timely work;

and alternate ways of playing in the mud.

Hiking a couple of hundred yards uphill through deep snow at dusk on a cold evening to mess with water pipes may not appeal to everyone; but water is always tricky in the winter, even if you aren’t managing livestock.  Across the hollow our neighbors have to leave the tap running at night to prevent their pipes freezing, and, even as we write, downtown Steubenville (the nearest town of any size, about twelve miles downriver of us) is in its fifth day without water, the mains having frozen and burst sometime last week.

Our lower farmhouse draws its water from two springs, a small one right behind the springhouse, and a big one about three hundred fifty feet away.   Springs take some maintenance; we’re learning by experience how to manage.  For one thing, they can silt up pretty quickly after a big spate; when the water starts coming slowly we know we have to clear the intake.  Right now the issue is ice; the long ¾ inch pipe from the upper spring runs overground, and if too little water is coming down it doesn’t carry enough geothermal energy to keep from freezing.  If the flow is compromised the whole pipe will freeze very quickly, and then we have to wait for warmer temperatures to thaw the pipe and start the flow again.  The best remedy we’ve found is to disconnect the pipe when we expect the thermometer to drop below ten degrees.  The pipe drains automatically, since it runs downhill, and we can reconnect as soon as the weather gets above twenty degrees or so.  The cistern holds more than eighteen hundred gallons, so with some care we can go a couple of weeks before we have a problem; and, if the lower spring doesn’t freeze, we can do without the upper spring indefinitely.

But you can’t put it out of your mind; you have to keep a part of your brain alert to weather conditions, and you have to check the spring flow regularly.  Some winter evenings you have to hike up the hill, take your gloves off, and get your hands wet for a minute.  It can be cold, and slippery; if the snow is deep, there are hidden obstacles to trip you.   Getting out of a warm chair by the fire to tend the spring isn’t always what we were thinking we wanted to do.

Oh, but did we mention how beautiful the woods are in the dusk, with the snow laid down like a blanket, and the tracks – some we know, and some we can just guess – stitched across?  Snowfall in the woods sounds like the tiniest of glass wind chimes, and the farmhouse lights, warm in the crook of the hollow, make the dark woods more fascinating.

And while the folks in town pick up water from the city drop-off centers and do goodness-knows-what about flushing toilets, we, when the water stops running, know what we can do about it.