late summer

Sunday, August 21:

   Small showers have fallen periodically over the last two days.  Last summer we went through July, August, and September without any rain worth considering.  We had to start feeding hay in September.  It is encouraging to see the pasture greening up now, even if the upper layer of the verdure is mostly ragweed and ironweed.

We walked up the field – the last eighty feet or so is sloped one-in-one, making it a climb rather than a walk – to investigate the location of a clearly audible short in the hotwire fence that marks the limit of the field.  It is very easy to follow our ears to the source of the loud snap.  That length of fence is cobbled together with barbed wire as well as low-tension aluminum fencewire.  On a metal step-in post at the very top of the field, a grasshopper, on what mission we will never know, has climbed as far as the plastic insulator and interposed his body between strands of electrified wire.  His rigid corpse has been providing the medium for a 2,000 volt arc every three-quarters of a second.  We wedged him out with a twig and the fence went back to its quiet efficiency.

From here we can see virtually all of our south pasture, which is to say almost all of our pasture, period.  It falls steeply away below us for half its width, then moderates its slope – we won’t say ‘levels off’ – the rest of its width to Jeddo’s run.  On the far side of the creek, our land rises nearly vertically for fifty feet or more, crosses Church Road, and continues up the heavily wooded hill which closes our northern horizon for maybe sixty degrees.  We live in a bowl.  In this first full year of our career as graziers, we watch our pasture with some of the anxiety of a mother over a child’s sickbed, studying its condition and pretending confidence in signs of improvement.  Honestly, we think it looks much better, much less weedy, much greener, than it did this time last year.  After all, Joel says it should.  It must.  We expect to get at least a few more weeks grazing out of it than we did last year, no, the year before, last year doesn’t count because of the drought.

Even if we never succeed, we would rather fail at this than be successful at anything else.

The big garden at the TOR’s was disked yesterday — at least, that half of it that had been plowed from sod last week.  The older section was still so damp the spaces between the disks kept getting packed with dirt, and after a pass or two the men decided to let it wait a bit.  Next week it will be sown to buckwheat.  Whata we sowed in the burned-over pumpkin patch is up already, and looks like making a thick planting.

The carrots we planted two weeks ago, however, are germinating very spottily.  The uneven rain patterns of the last two weeks, augmented by water pumped from North creek only when the soil was drying out, may be responsible for the inconsistent germination.  We are disappointed with what we see, but will put in two more rows of carrots this week.  The last planting of green beans has been somewhat damaged by the big, late-summer grasshoppers, but is growing very well, and should give us plenty of beans to can, God willing.

The four summer calves have been on the west pasture for several weeks now.  At nine weeks old they graze lightly, and get a good deal of their calories from their twice-daily bucket feedings of Isabel’s good, warm Jersey milk, the fat content of which is higher than for any other breed of dairy cow.  Last week we began trimming the buckets of those two of the calves destined for next year’s freezer by about a pint a feeding, preparatory to their being weaned in another week or so.  The two little bulls belonging to S-3 will remain on the bucket indefinitely, as they are being raised for oxen.

Besides, Mom doesn’t want to have to deal with five or six gallons of milk a day.  With three or four, there will be plenty for drinking, lots of cream for churning and for cream cheese and sour cream, and lots of milk for the mozzarella we use so much of.  When four or five gallons accumulate in a day or so, we use it for hard cheeses like parmesan, farmhouse cheddar, and colby, hoping our skill level will someday approximate our interest level.  We can make a fairly reliable parmesan, but have not yet achieved a cheddar we wanted to bring out and exhibit to guests.

Now the grass in the west pasture is getting short, and we will turn the babies onto the hill above, where Bridget, the mini, has been in solitary confinement for most of August.  She will be glad of the company, and the opportunity to bully someone.  The clearing up on the west hill is a project which mostly gets forgotten in the summer, when there is so much other work to monopolize our attention, but it continues to improve, slowly, now that it gets full sun for more than half the day.  The little bulls will do less damage than Bridget to the struggling grass, since they do not graze so closely.  It is time to give the lower pasture on that side a rest, and a chance for the sparse grass to fill in the empty spaces.  Farming on the near vertical holds many challenges all its own, but the controlled grazing of small areas must result in improved sod, better retention of water and organic matter, and, over time, more cow-days per acre.

This revolution is, however, an experiment.  Like any worthwhile experiment, at the outset the end is unknown.  Whether we demonstrate that a few acres of lousy soil can be converted into the energy source from which a bio-converter – a milk cow – can power a self-sustained and self-sustaining family ecology, or whether we preside over an instance of the failure of that hypothesis, is yet to be determined.  We will endeavor to be honest in our self-evaluation, so that interested idealists may learn, if not one right way, at least one wrong way, to go about it.

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