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Posts Tagged ‘catholic / farm culture’

Saturday, February 15, 2014:

   A headache sent us to bed unreflective of the weather forecast, which was in any case too much like all the other forecasts this winter to stand out.  Eight inches of wet snow and half an inch of sleet caught us by surprise, and caught the dry cows out in a pasture without access even to such shelter as the woods provide.  In the morning, icicles fringed the fur along their spines and dangled against their foreheads when we carried bales down to a pasture of smooth white, unbroken except here at the fence, where, judging by the evidence, they had paced all night, unable to lie down for the cold and snowfall.  Farmers can’t afford migraines.

   Blessedly, the dry cows are in good condition, not to be put out by an uncomfortable night, and they tucked into the bales we threw them with the pleasure of animals who must ordinarily rustle their own groceries.  The young pigs are always warm in their hutches, and the lactating cows had spent the night in the barn.  But we were back to temperatures that never saw twenty degrees during the day, and dipped below zero at night, and now the ground was – and still is – wrapped in an armor coating of ice, the cows’ breakfast freeze-dried below the surface.

   It is difficult even to move in this snow.  With each step there is a catch and thrust through the half-inch of frozen crust, and a snag to hold the foot coming forward.  Beneath the crust the dry snow is so cold it cannot compress, powdering under your boot and shifting like the climbing up a sand dune.  Simple chores, like walking down the water hoses to drain them, leave us panting; and our breath, which our scarves force upward, freezes in white rime on our eyelashes.  Ice must be broken for animals to drink, even at the spring tank which last winter never froze, and the slabs of ice piled up behind look like heaps of glass.

   Our low tunnels, stronger this year than any year previous, still collapsed, or rather subsided, under the weight of snow, the PVC ribs laid over to the ground under a thick, wrinkled skin of white.  The broom with which we usually sweep the snow off the hoops can’t break through the icy crust and we are forced to use snow shovels, with the result that we snag two or three holes in the six mil plastic covers.  One tunnel has three broken ribs; interestingly, it is the stronger hoops which have broken, unable to bear the weight when their weaker neighbors gave up trying.  Maybe there’s a lesson there.  When the burden of snow is removed the undamaged hoops erect themselves again, and the tunnels once more protect our winter spinach and carrots.

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Thursday, August 29:

   The young calves and the sheep are together again in a paddock at the bottom of the south hill pasture.  For two weeks we have been moving the sheep across steep hillside where ragweed, asters and lemon balm offered mixed forage for sheep, but nothing for the little steers and the heifer calf; now at last they are back with the steers.

   Some of us are particularly glad because we will no longer be moving two paddocks in the home pasture, on top of the two at the monastery:  one in the front pasture for the lactating cows, where the whole herd passed in June and the regrowth is green and lush, and one for the dry cows on the back of the monastery hill, where the grass is coarse and fibrous and there is still much cane to be trampled down.  In total, there are now three paddocks, with a total of four moves, most days, because the lactating cows get a new paddock after every milking.  This sounds like a lot of moving fence, and it is, but because the paddocks are small, the time involved is not more than we can manage right now.

   Actually, it is sometimes the part of a job which would seem to make that activity a cert for the scrap pile – like walking a quarter mile out to the dry cow paddock and back, twice a day, to watch for one of the heifers to go into heat – that ends up contributing the greatest benefits.  The top of the monastery hill gathers in breezes like a seine gathers in fish, and each one passes through our sweat-soaked hair.  Sun on our backs and the feel of the ground coming up through our boots, damp and soft or dry and sunbaked, tells us about the weather, the condition of the forage, whether the cows need to be moved to a shady spot, and the expectations for autumn regrowth.  The long swing of legs in boots is different from the shuffle of sandals across the kitchen floor, and the difference is welcome to our feet and hips as the sight of the distant horizon is welcome to our eyes.

   And the pause, hitched up on the top of a water hog, while a small stock tank fills for the spring steers, is not a taking-out from work time, but a built-in moment of alertness and meditation and relaxation.  There is a feeling of accomplishment when one tends animals which is satisfying on a level not like the satisfaction of a perfect baking of bread, or a thick layer of rich black compost spread across a garden bed, or a cheese knocked out of the hoop and set to dry on the cheese rack.  All these are good; together they are very good.  Variety:  it is a nourishing thing, like Hopkins’ pied beauty or Whitman’s praise of the labor of hands.

   The tide long ago turned on the basement shelves, and the neap tide of empty jars has become a spring tide of full ones, of salsa – over forty quarts in the last two evenings – and sauce, peaches, a bumper crop, jam of several varieties, something like twenty quarts of honey, more than dozen old laying hens, ditto broth – food for many occasions to come.  And we are just getting started; the tomatoes are only half in, and the green beans for canning won’t start for another week or so.  There is cider to be put down, as much as we can squeeze out of the small, sweet apples that grow in the south hill pasture.  There will be beets to pickle.  The onions and garlic are drying in the summer kitchen before we braid them and hang them in a cool corner of the basement.  And in the cave, the small, dry, dirt-floored cellar under the east end of the house, there will be winter squash and pumpkins on long shelves of plank and cinder block.

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Friday, February 15:

We are tapping trees this week.  Two of the boys went out Wednesday with a brace and bit and a bucket of spiles; now on the hill two-gallon pails hang on the southeast side of ten or fifteen maple trees, enough to produce all the sap our backyard operation can process, all our household needs for a year of pancakes and waffles.

It is a feat to scramble diagonally across our steep hills filling five gallon buckets from the sap pails on each tree and trying not to spill too much or fall fifty feet into North creek below.   The dogs think this is an exercise designed for their personal amusement and stay close to us, showing us deer sign and getting tangled up with our feet.  Bridget the sorrel pony knows we are wasting our time and stands at the pasture fence to show us that we would be better employed bringing her half a bale of second cutting clover and timothy.  Despite her, and despite the way our boots are slipping on the thin wet snow and the mud beneath it, we are purposeful, determined:  the trees have something to give us, wild food to be had for the gathering, and we are out here to get it.

The cattle at the monastery are only half-way through the forage in the very large paddock that was made for them last Saturday.  When they are given too much space they browse inefficiently, stepping on grass they would eat if they thought they were feeling competetive.  Nevertheless we are going to leave them in that paddock for another two or three days, there is still so much grass.  We will not run out of forage this winter, and in the spring, if the gods smile, we must consider buying extra steers just to keep the pasture grazed.

The black hog made the great transition this afternoon, from Fed to Food.  The boys brought home a bucket of casings to be scraped and tomorrow they’ll break down the sides into chops, hams, belly and sausage meat.  No more going without breakfast meat on Sundays.  On Thursday the farm science class will learn to scrape hogs’ intestines and make five kinds of sausage.

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Wednesday, October 24:

Last year at this time we were in haste to develop the spring which now waters the big barn in all but the longest of cold snaps; this year we are hurrying to finish the water system that will keep the steers frost-free this winter on the monastery pastures.  One of these days, maybe, we will run out of big projects needing completion before snow flies.   Most of today was spent gathering supplies for the tire tank we hope to build this Saturday under the west pasture spring; here the water runs fast enough that we hope, by keeping the water underground before it enters the tank, to keep the flow from freezing.  That would mean being able to run the steers on grass at the monastery all winter, saving the baled hay for the milk cows in the home pasture.

The last few preparations for the winter gardens are gradually being made.  The bed is composted, tilled, and raked for planting next year’s garlic; ashes in buckets wait in the barn for someone to spread them over empty beds to be tilled in the spring.  Hoops and sandbags for the high tunnels are spread on the lawn in various states of incompletion.  Every length of row cover or clean six-mil plastic film that can be found is hunted out and examined for holes.  Only the warm weather of the last few days prevents us putting the first layer of protection on the winter carrots and salad greens.

Next to the river the poplars scarcely admit of the season by the yellow cast of their huge leaves, but on the bluffs above the maples are bare and only the oaks keep their foliage; this is shades of russet and brown, with the occasional deep scarlet of a lover’s rose.  Elsewhere the woods have lost their impenetrability, black boles standing out against a carpet of yellow.  In the ditches sumac, blood-red, flashes like a heliograph when it catches the sun, and now is the time to mark out patches of wild asparagus, clouds of ferny yellow, for spring foraging.  Our family news is like the weather, warm and cold by turns; one son has left us to return to Minnesota with his lovely family, while another proposes bringing home as his wife a woman we have long loved and admired.  We are joyful and sorrowful.

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Tuesday, September 25:

The last three nights have been cold, not frosty but in the forties, and the zinnias which burned all summer with the intense pinks and oranges of cactus flowers or those enormous crepe paper blooms they sell in Mexican marketplaces look stiff now, dull and scorched with the cold.  The Beautiful river reflects the sky in infinite shades of blue, here laid down with palette knife, there dotted in with the tip of a brush.

Leafless tomato vines hung until today with the uncomfortable knotted boniness of skeletons from the stakes in the big garden; this afternoon, to cure a fit of discontent brought on by intractable chickens, we cleaned out that garden.  Vines were yanked and piled in wheel barrows, stakes were sorted and stacked against the fence:  whole ones, broken ones to mark the ends of rows, and rotten ones for the bonfire pit.  The fall cabbage was weeded and hoed, the carrots picked over painstakingly for tiny young purslane and gallinsoga – so hard to pull without disturbing the baby carrot roots – and the okra that will soon succumb to some unknown nematode was stripped of every pod, however small.  The piled weeds and waste were carted around to the pig pen and thrown in for the pigs to eat.  They did so, fastidiously, like a diner nibbling a sprig of parsley.

The chickens defy – at present – our attempts to cull them for non-layers.  Some years this culling is a simple matter, a perfunctory glance at vent, wattles, and pelvis telling us all we need to know about a hen’s present state of lay; not so lately.  The examination is performed as we turn the birds out of the hen house in the morning.  The Sussex and Australorps are all too young for the hatchet and are turned out at once with a can of cracked corn scattered over the bare ground for their breakfast; then it is the turn of the Rhode Island Reds.

They are hungry and mill impatiently around the chicken house complaining.  We catch them one by one, beginning with those whose pale yellow legs and thick red combs indicate that they are in lay; but when we examine eyelids for a bleached appearance, vents for a similar lack of color and a wide, wet, generous appearance, we are stumped.  Of the eighteen Reds, counted off by tally marks chalked on the side of the laying box, only four show consistent signs of their state of lay.  These are, or should be, the slackers, those hens marked by destiny to make chicken pie for tonight’s dinner, but are they?  The other chickens have us confused, uncertain; they show some of the attributes of hens presently laying, and some of the dry hen.  If their skin is bleached, indicating that the yellow pigments in their bodies are being deposited in the yolks of the eggs we so badly want them to be laying, then their pelvis, instead of being loose and three fingers wide is stiff and tight, scarcely admitting the width of two fingers.  If they have the thick yellow legs of a non-layer then their vents are wet and smooth like those of a hen in lay.  So we suspend the jury until tomorrow, hoping that somehow by then they will have settled into something more consistent.

We hate cutting a hen open and finding eggs inside.

There have been none too many eggs on the place this summer as it is; with forty mature birds we should expect at least twenty or more eggs a day, rather than the measly dozen, or ten, or seven, we have been seeing lately.  And yet we started off the summer so well, the baskets coming up with almost three dozen eggs every day, and like wise virgins we kept them by us, filling cardboard egg cartons with dozens and dozens, fifteen or eighteen dozen at a time, selling none, knowing the day was not far off when the superabundance would be a dearth and nothing would compensate us for the lack of those eggs.  And the dearth came, and now we are sometimes even reduced to the humiliation of buying pale, flaccid store eggs so there are enough eggs for baking.

We killed a snake by the pond today.  S-4 took off its head, suspiciously triangular, with an eye-hoe, leaving the writhing orange-and-brown mottled body where the pastured pigs whose paddock we were setting up could eat it.  I guess they did, but we took the head away and prized open the hard grim mouth with a stick and couldn’t assure ourselves it had fangs, as we have done in the past to make sure the snake was a copperhead.  It hurts us to kill a non-venomous snake; we are fans of the snake in general, but this farm is home to lots of children and we take no chances.

Moral:  if you aren’t dangerous, try not to look as though you are.

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Tuesday, September 11:

Some days are just like that; they roll over you like a fog, leaving you with the conviction that nothing good will ever happen, could ever happen, again.  Why is that?

Farming means there are a great many things over which you have little control.  When you drive a car, or operate a computer, or bake a cake, for the most part things go where you send them, stay where you put them, time out the way you expect them to.  Not so the farming.  A dozen, twenty, balls in the air.  Feet set on a tight rope which sways this way and that.  The particular is always before you, in all its vagaries, and without the years of experience which would teach you that for all the fluctuation of the small things the big picture is more or less stable, you react with every change, flinch at every air pocket on the route.

Some days you end up air sick.

Only the love you have of the act itself; only that you cannot tear your eyes from the clump of gentians pushing sideways from under a damp rock, that the plodding down the hill with a bucket in one hand, eyes counting the boards in the fence that still need to be mended, still after a year, two years, fulfills some need we have for continuity, stability, connection; only these and things like these tie you firmly to the thing you are afraid of and cannot do without.

Most days are better, though.  There are red apples in the top of the barnyard tree, and if someone climbs up there and shakes the branches the apples will come raining down and send the chickens squawking, Bridget, the sorrel mini, running to steal what she can before the children fill their buckets.

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Monday, September 10:

This is to answer the question, “What do you feed the homestead pig?”

Corn stalks.  There is a big stack of these in a spare stall, and we throw in six or seven every day or two.  They must be getting eaten, because anyone who has cleaned a stall where they were not getting eaten knows just how miserable and tangled the bedding gets, and the bedding in the pig pen is loose and duffy, with only a few fragments of cornstalk in it.

Windfall apples.  Our farm has five apple trees within forty yards of the pig sty.  Piglets who run from a human being at the fence will poke their noses through the gaps in the wire when offered a slice of apple taken off with someone’s Uncle Henry.  In the season there is always a bucket or two of windfall apples beside the pig pen, and passers-by hand-feed them to the babies, or tip a dozen over the fence if in a hurry.  Apples are good pig food, at least so say the pigs.

Swill, slops, garbage, whatever name you give it, waste food from cooking and the table is good pig calories.  We boil it in a big kettle to increase its appeal – pigs and chickens prefer cooked scraps to a jumble of vegetable waste and leftovers – and the pigs eat it enthusiastically.

Skim milk, buttermilk, whey – dairy waste of all kinds.  Particularly good is to keep a bucket of skim milk by the wood furnace where it will clabber overnight into a thick yogurt full of beneficial lactobacilli and nourishment.

Bakery waste.  Some kind soul in the city brings bags of waste from a gourmet bakery and gives them to the sisters at the monastery; what cannot be utilized there often ends up at our farm, where the pigs love it soaked in milk or warm water.  Chickens love it too.

Cooking water.  When we steam or boil anything – except pork – the water is saved and added to the swill bucket at the foot of the basement stairs.  Pasta water is starchy and full of calories, but the water from boiling corn or steaming green beans is not to be despised, being full of flavor as well as – so nutritionists who want us to eat our vegs raw will tell us – all the vitamins leached from the vegetables.

Hay.  Yes, hay.  Pigs like grass and will eat a good deal of the waste hay from the cows’ manger.

Weeds pulled from the pasture in a spare moment.  Wheelbarrow loads of weeds and vines and half-spoiled vegs from the garden.

That’s all that comes to mind at the moment, but it gives you the idea.

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