who we are
The Sow’s Ear is a small, family-scale sustainable farm in far Eastern Ohio, comprising twenty-four acres of land designated by the Ohio land survey “not suitable for agriculture”. We raise dairy and beef cows, pigs, and poultry, organic hay on leased meadows, root crops for animal feed, and four-season organic vegetables for human consumption. We raise most of what is consumed on the farm, by animals and people, with a surplus from which we derive some cash and from which we give to our community.
The principals behind our farm practices are the idea that a true farm is nearly or completely self-sustaining. It is not dependent upon the importation of feeds, fertilizer, or fossil fuels. It is not depleted by man’s activities, but derives from them yearly deposits of wealth in the form of increases in topsoil, moisture, and fertility.
Pursuant of these ideals, we practice management intensive, or rotational, grazing, the age-old principal of moving livestock over forage in imitation of the passage of feral herds and flocks. We use spring and surface water via a variety of non-electric systems for nearly all our stock water and irrigation. Our gardens are four-season, organic, intensive, and hand-worked. We feed and manage our livestock to promote their natural well-being. By practices which reduce or remove the necessity of off-farm inputs, and therefore of significant cash inputs, we can allow our animals to live naturally and grow at their natural rate, rather than following principals of commercial farming which emphasize fast growth and profitability.
Our farm is an ongoing attempt to rediscover by extensive experimentation those goals and principals of farming which once were so obvious to mankind as to need no explanation, and to give form to the idea that a farm is a microcosm where diverse species interact to their mutual benefit, where man becomes caretaker and the land a font from which a superabundance of food, clothing, warmth, the means of life, sustain all those living on it and overflow to nourish those outside.
Not to be too coy about what we are doing here, we want to state in so many words that this blog is being written, or published, or produced, or whatever it is one does to blogs, not because we want people to know about us and our family (we’re really trying to preserve some anonymity here), but to demonstrate for a public we believe is out there, that the small plot of ground with a cow, a couple of pigs, and flock of hens, that sustained the large majority of the western world for centuries, is still capable of doing so.
A young friend told us that recently her husband was watching, with great interest, a video on “homesteading.” “We could do this, honey,” he kept exclaiming. His interest kept mounting, until the homesteaders pulled out their milking machine to milk Bossy. “There,” he concluded in disgust. “You have to have a bunch of money to live like that.” Another friend has spent years looking for some acres in the country on which to raise his growing — and growing up — family. Several months ago he posted on his facebook account –” Let’s just face it, everybody. You have to be rich to be a gentleman farmer.”
This blog is to blow the cover off that conclusion. You don’t have to have a a bunch of money to live a rural lifestyle and raise most of what you eat; but you do have to work. Of course, you can work hard at your paid avocation, and if you’re lucky, you’ll make enough to pay for your needs, or what you conceive to be your needs, with enough left over to have some fun to repay yourself for doing all day something you probably wouldn’t choose to do if you weren’t paid to do it.
If you are one of those people, and maybe you don’t know if you are or not, who would like to dig in the dirt, and mess with animals, and shovel manure, and make a compost heap, and collect eggs, and live in rhythm with the cycles of nature; if you’re someone who thinks he would enjoy noticing that the bluebirds are back looking for nesting holes in the pasture fence posts, and turning over half-cooked compost and gloating over all the red, squirmy worms in it; if you feel as though you’d like your work to be more directly related to your needs and the needs of other people, and the shape of your life to arise from your loves, hates, tastes, preferences, inclinations, proclivities, talents, and passions — then maybe this blog has something to say to you.
Because the reason for this blog is to say that Sun on Grass plus Milk Cow equals Food. Lots of it. Like, four steers in the freezer per year. And a good share of three pigs, and a not inconsiderable proportion of two hundred dozen eggs and three dozen fat broilers. Not to mention two or three gallons of drinking milk A DAY, and six pounds of butter and two gallons of yogurt a week, and a pint of sour cream, and about six pounds of cheese every week too. And ice cream whenever we feel like making it, and cream cheese, and all the good hearty cream-of soups we can eat. But to get all this, you have to want it badly enough to milk a cow, faithfully, at least once, and traditionally twice, a day. No skipping. No feeling tired, run down, sick, or just bored with it. Faithfullness. That’s what’s required. Absolute faithfulness, and, hopefully, a liking for the work.
A big price, but not in money.
Think about it. That’s all we’re here to say. You can log off now. Or you can come back periodically and we can tell you how we do it. Maybe you’ll end up inventing your own picture for how you can do it. We wish you the best of luck.
Take twenty-four acres of the most worthless land in the upper Ohio Valley, add one decrepit shack and a garage falling into ruin, and you have something that looks an awful lot like the Sow’s Ear in February of 1996. Put on it a price tag of only $11,000, and you might just possibly see why two artist/farmers with four sons would pay cash and move right in. Fifteen years, four more children, and untold manhours later, the Sow’s Ear is a going concern, providing home, work, education, and most of the food for our family. On the way to where we are now, we have picked up a lot of dents and scratches, some egg on our faces, and a good deal of skill and information. A model farm, complete with manicured cows and red-painted barns, we are not, and don’t expect ever to be, but we know a little about a lot of things — cows, pigs, goats, bees, butchering, milking, making cheese, raising beef steers, bees, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, children, corn, garden truck, and barns, sheds, raising the roof, and raising a little Cain — and a lot about a few things — but we’ll have to think a while about what those things are.
Jeddo’s Run is a short watershed, beginning only about two miles above the great Ohio River, itself an energy surge the presence of which is felt even when it is out of mind. The hills along the river, really the foothills of the Appalachian mountains which begin only a few miles away in West Virginia, drop steeply from twenty miles or more to the west, until they carry their spring water and runoff the last few miles with a rush into the great Ohio. Our land is what was left after a two-hundred year old farm was carved into many parcels of fifty acres or less; what we have is the steep hollow land no one could think of a use for. A man with a small sawmill acquired this parcel and built his house in the first half of the last century, to hold his family of marriageable daughters, and a small son who, experimenting one day in his sisters’ clothes closet with a box of Strike Anywheres, nearly incinerated himself and the house, and ended the career of a silk party dress for all time. We found the blackened timbers under the wall board when we gutted the house in 1996; we heard the history later that summer when one of the marriageable daughters, long since married and grown old, and then older, pulled down the drive in a Buick sedan and told us about the house.
We are finding out just what can be accomplished in the way of independence on twenty-four acres of lousy, acid, clayey, rocky, wet, trees-up-the-side-of-a-hill eastern Ohio. We don’t consider it indispensable to be input-free and off-grid — at least not at the moment; our study is to learn, if we can, just how many of our all-American, western-world assumptions — about money, food, time, technology,and pleasure — we can get in back of and evaluate for ourselves. Our family pursuit is the discovery of an economy of labor and cooperation with the land and its natural capacity, which might just possibly light an EXIT sign over the door leading out of our twenty-first century maze: a maze with turns for Walmart and cradle-to-grave institutionalization — day-care to eldercare, — alleys for keeping up with the Joneses, or trap doors for losing track of your family, but no apparent way OUT.
In the interest of complete disclosure, and to avoid the cardinal sin of discouraging the earnest by glossing one’s shortcomings, we want it understood at the outset that we do have one paying job in the family, and it does include health insurance (the mark of modern slavery) (Note: Shawn left that job in 2015 to work full-time as maintenance man/farmer at the monastery up the road, where we raise dairy and beef cows and a very large garden. We no longer have health insurance. Some things are worth a risk: which is more reliable, stock in TIAA/CREF, or fertility in the soil?) That said, please note that our income has always fallen below what the federal government, in its great wisdom, considers the “poverty level”. We pay cash for what we need, and if we can’t afford it, we don’t need it. We use savings to add to the value of our property, and buy clothes, cars, tools, and furniture second-hand. We eat what we raise, and our luxuries (food from the store) are things we could just as well do without.
This is the web page of the Sow’s Ear Farm and the One Cow Revolution.
We are beginning this web page because, having gotten to where we are, we would like, if possible, to help other people not to take so long to get here. We believe that if we had known at twenty-five even a single example of a home/farm economy like the one we are living now, we would have been encouraged to pursue more directly our own course toward what is largely a non-cash economy. We hope that, if we can place before the interested a somewhat detailed account of our one cow economy, many people who are today longing for some sort of rural, agrarian lifestyle, but who cannot envision it clearly enough to develop a plan for getting there, will be able to adapt our blueprint to their own talents and needs and use it to attain what we believe is man’s right by nature — a life in mutually beneficial coexistence with God’s earth and its natural gifts to us — food, shelter, pleasure — a life of stewardship in which it is possible to tend our garden, that we and our piece of the world may be fruitful and multiply.
The principle behind the Revolution is simply that the dairy cow is the original solar battery. One dairy cow, pastured, can convert a small acreage — how small we are still discovering — of sun on grass, into food for ten humans, eight to twelve calves, several dozen chickens, and a couple of hogs. We aren’t counting the dogs and cats because we don’t eat them, but they are working members of the farm staff, and they like milk, buttermilk, and whey as much as the chickens. No one likes it like the hogs do; they are hogs. It is our intention to detail in these pages just how efficiently a single dairy cow can feed a small farm. Stay tuned.
Oh, and by the way — Beth will do most of the typing, and she doesn’t know anything about this program, so, bear with us.
A nice woman we met recently was excited to hear about our little farm. She came out to buy new potatoes. She followed us from the root cellar to the kitchen (where our scale is), taking note of the herb garden, green house, dairy, and the raw milk cheddar that was just then in the wall press. “I have a friend you really remind me of,” she exclaimed. “Are you really into health foods and natural stuff?”
Oddly, we are not. People often seem to make the assumption that a person who raises his own food without chemicals must be “really into health foods and natural stuff,” by which is meant, we suppose, all organic foods, no sugar, no soda, no junk food, no caffeine, no alcohol, no white flour; yoga, tai chi, zen . . . our eyes begin to glaze. The idea is that we raise all this really good healthy stuff because we want to make sure we are eating the freshest, healthiest, most organic food we possibly can, with the goal, again we suppose, of being so healthy that approaching germs take one look and simply turn around and go the other way. Thus we may live eternally, and not miss out on any of the good stuff coming to us.
Not so, but far otherwise. For us, the healthy food is not the object, but one of the results, of what we are really about. While we are as glad as the next guy to know that our food is good for us; while we really dislike getting sick, and go to reasonable lengths to avoid laying ourselves open to infection, our health is not something we spend a lot of time thinking about. It seems to get along okay without too much attention from us, and that’s the way we like it. Keeping the weeds down in the various gardens, the chickens out of the newly sprouted corn, watching to see that the bees don’t swarm before we split a colony –discussing the nature of God, considering the essentials of charity, the fine points in a debate (especially if we are debating who has to get the pig bucket this time), savoring the harmonies in a symphohy, or a song by Hank Williams –these and similar considerations occupy our thoughts to the almost complete exclusion of worries about whether the food we are eating is organic, trans-fat free, or contains what-you-may-call-its – can’t call to mind what the latest “thing” is — but, anyway, that.
What we are about isn’t “health food”, but farming. We do what we do, not so that we can eat the healthiest food known to man and God – we farm because we love to farm. We live this way because it is how we like to live. We keep a garden, raise bees, butcher our own hogs, chickens, steers, deer, or what have you, because we like doing it. In the process – lengthy and often painful – of teaching ourselves how to do the million-and-one things you have to learn when you start farming, find out just how unprepared you are, and just keep going anyway, we have also come to have a very pleasing diet. It tastes good, gives us energy, lets us sleep at night, and has not yet made any of us fat, so we like it. It also happens to be organic, and, more significantly to us, “fresh and local”, not to mention dirt cheap. Aside from a little cash for seed, feed (a factor we are always trying to minimize), tractor fuel, calves, chicks, and such, all we have in our food is our labor, and, as we already said, we like farming.
Beth once worked as office staff for a doctor, answering phones, billing (this was pre-computers), and filing. Introducing her to the filing system, the doctor impressed upon her: “A file lost or misplaced isn’t a problem; it’s a catastrophe.” His point took a while to sink in, but once grasped, it has remained a principle applicable in many situations. Lost information, or bad information, isn’t a problem; it’s a complete halt to progress.
Our years of homeschooling the tadpoles in our pond, our smaller number of years in the sustainable farming “movement” (what we call “Retograde Progress”), have reinforced in our minds just how unhelpful false information can be, and just how much of it you can expect to find current in any new endeavor. Ulf Kintzel, in his article “the State of Grass Farming” (Farming magazine, vol.10, issue 4, no.40), expresses this well: “while I always have and still do appreciate various publications for grass farmers and graziers, it has not ceased to amaze me what is being propagated nowadays. Many of those who offer advice have been at it for less than a decade but have become self-announced gurus who write books and have a considerable following, apparently claiming the ultimate truth. Yet, I find some of what is being said these days at least intelletually dishonest.” He quotes Goethe: “We know accurately only when we know little, with knowledge doubt increases.”
Our experiences in the one cow revolution are only the first steps in a slow progression, the kindergaarten of a process we hope will eventually help restore a form of independence and security to those who desire it. We are not sure that the fruits of our experience, valuable indeed to us, are fruits meant for universal cultivation. Rather, we have in mind that if we chronicle our own experiences of twenty-five years and more gardening, beekeeping, stock raising, butchering, and generally raising our own food, we will share, in the telling, enough to allow the interested and determined to form an image of what his own path to revolution might look like. No two paths will be the same, as no two individuals or families are alike, but there is something about shared experiences which may be instructive, and is usually encouraging.
Especially mistakes. One of the disheartening things we used to find when reading how-to-homeschool books, back in the ancient days when we could bear to read how-to-homeschool books, was how easy the people who write those books find it to homeschool. Hardly any thing to it, in fact, that any motivated, organized, dedicated, moderately intelligent superwoman couldn’t do while standing on her head, preparing a wholesome dinner from scratch, washing and folding fourteen loads of laundry, painting the living room, and writing a how-to-homeschool book on her laptop at the kitchen table. Just follow these few simple steps, remake your whole family in the image of saints, or of the author’s family, throw out your old habits, take on some tailor-made ones, and there you are – instant homeschooling success. Depressing. After attending one or two homeschool conferences, at which twenty-thousand indispensible products guaranteed to impart wisdom and knowledge to our eager young lads and lasses were displayed on every side, we swore off homeschool conferences, too. Even our friendly neighborhood homeschool group meetings were dangerous; there is something about the process of relating our successes that leaves out all messy background, kind of like those Dorling Kindersley books full of bright pictures on white backgrounds. There is something about hearing how someone else does it that paints a rosy picture of peace, accord, and progress in our minds, while at home our principle experiences are not thus but far otherwise.
The idea that anyone should read any part of our chronicles and come away with the idea that we sing as we work, smile a lot, and agree about everything, would disturb us deeply. Please get firmly in place an image of lots of people in a fairly small, somewhat shabby, not-too-clean home; people whose tastes and opinions clash just as much as anyone’s; people who, if they do the right thing, might well be doing it with the wrong attitude; people just like you, if you know what we mean. We are messy, distracted, and selfish. If we have something going for us, it is that we have a sort of blueprint for where we are trying to go, and we spend a lot of time together. One goal, and time. Maybe that’s all we need.
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