Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why Not Sell and Go?

I'm going through and finishing off some half-finished blog entries from the past couple years. This was written in 2010.

This essay belongs to both blogs, The Rainbow Covering and Reports from the Farm. My life belongs to both worlds, the natural world of the farm, and the spiritual world of my Christian journey. But wait--the farm is God's creation; that's spiritual...and my Christian journey is so deeply fed and supported by the practical day-in, day-out work of the farm. The "two" worlds are inseparable.

Today, for the umpteenth time, someone suggested "the solution" to "my problem".

"The problem", as usual, being that I am a) very land-poor at the moment and b) even more time-poor...a) in spite of and b) because of the fact that I am farming as well as working a full-time job off-farm, which is obviously too much for one person.

"The solution" usually begins with the person asking, "Look, I know it's none of my business, but how much equity do you have in this place? You're never going to win this [insert current regulatory/local politics struggle]; why don't you just sell the whole thing and buy a place in [insert name of more rural county that doesn't have such restrictive zoning regulations], and then you can live a nice, sane, peaceful life for a change?"

I really do try to keep an open mind. When folks make this suggestion, I don't necessarily try to rationalize my decision to stay and keep struggling to them (after all, it's my decision and my life; if they don't "get it" now they probably never will). But I do try to honestly, once again, put all the issues, assets, and liabilities on the table and give them a good looking-over.

Today it was one of my Old German Baptist acquaintances that suggested this, and for some reason that gave me some new insights.

He had offered to drop by and share his construction wisdom on the proposed remodeling project at 501 North St., the farm's "little brown house". We spent the better part of an hour going over the plans and fleshing out some of the details, but I could tell he was thinking grave thoughts about the whole thing.

"Why not just keep the big house, and sell this? Or better yet, sell the whole thing and move to Franklin County." My first response was to tell him what really special soil we have here...I often quip "I'd move to ____, but I just can't figure out how to take my soil and groundwater with me." Then I told him about my rock-solid understanding that God put me here to serve him in a way like Noah--building the farm as an ark for a multitude of species, safe from the pesticide-poisoned world out there.

The mention of Franklin county brought an odd sense of dissonance as I pondered his words. Mostly folks recommend I sell out and move to Leavenworth County, just north of the farm. Then I realized: he was suggesting his community, not mine. Many of the Old German Baptists live in Franklin County, south of Douglas county.

And that lead me to reflect on an increasingly real consideration for sticking it out and staying here: Here is where my people are.

Here is where my people are. And that is my greatest treasure.

Sustainable Farming in a Warm Winter

This post was written in early winter, 2012, and only now finished.

Good article on an important topic:

Long, sustained cold weather helps kill grasshopper eggs in the soil, as well as other types of insect eggs. But there are many countervailing forces at work; humidity encourages a killing fungus among grasshoppers, so a bumper crop of nymphs in the spring may fizzle in a hot, humid June before doing much damage. Likewise, we could constantly till the soil during a mild winter like this, to expose as many grasshopper eggs as possible to the killing cold of a sharp winter night, even if the days are mild. But that would dry out the soil, and expose it to erosion by the wind, and disturb the beneficial creatures sleeping beneath the surface, like the salamander we found a couple years ago and didn't kill because we weren't using a power tiller.

My choice to avoid even "certified organic" tampering with "God and Mother Nature" is based on the premise that if we grow a wide variety of stuff, some things will do well in any given year, even if some fail. I believe that true "sustainability" is found not in heroic measures to save a particular planting of a particular crop, but rather to use the least possible effort/inputs to raise the most we can of something, anything, everything. With the diversity of livestock and veggies, sheep eat weeds (if that's all we grow) and chickens eat grasshoppers (more profit there), so even total crop failure produces something.

"Least effort" means avoiding many conventional and organic practices: irrigation (unless we need wet soil to harvest carrots, for example), raised beds, double digging, biodynamic compost, pest control, fancy packaging, etc.--basically, anything that takes extra human or industrial energy. It means putting seeds or plants in the ground so that they grow naturally, and harvesting and marketing with a minimum of cosmetic "fuss" (trimming, bunching, and pre-packaging). We do rinse the dirt off our veggies, because we want to keep our dirt on the farm, and not transmit weed seeds off-farm. We also rinse veggies to remove "field heat" and slow the metabolism so that things store better.

We also tend to be sparing about "forcing the season" for most crops, despite our selective use of row covers and the high tunnel. Forced plants are not healthy, happy plants. Tomatoes planted outside from seed bear nearly as early as those started early in a greenhouse, grown too long in the pot, and set out in soil colder than they like. There is usually little return for extraordinary effort to keep tomato plants from freezing in the fall...the quality of fruit is declining rapidly as the day length shortens, and it's better to just pick all the green fruit and ripen indoors or make green tomato pickles. The plants we cover are ones that like the cold, and the covers keep the tips from frost-biting so that quality is better. We also cover crops for practical handling reasons, like keeping the silver maple and elm seeds and autumn leaves from ending up in your salad without tedious hand-sorting as we harvest.

Doing less work for each crop means we can do more work on other things...and a mild winter also gives us time to catch up on things we usually struggle to squeeze in during the growing season. We are glad for a mild winter this year, for having time to lay down wood chips on muddy paths, to begin clearing and mulching long-fallowed garden beds that will be put back in cultivation this year, to sort and repair tools and generally get ready for the coming season.

There is an emotional level to sustainability, as well as practical--our inner energy, as well as physical energy, should be conserved and used wisely. A great deal of that has to do with reducing occasions for resentment, frustration, disappointment, and anger that we often feel when things don't go well. A key to this is remembering that "expectations are pre-meditated resentments". If we farm with hopes instead of expectations, leaving room for different outcomes than we are hoping for, then it can be easier to accept gracefully that things have not worked out as we foresaw.

Farming IS "a slot machine, not a Coke machine". If we expect that we will get X volume of crop from planting Y volume of seed, we are sure to be stressed. Instead, we plant seeds (mainly for things that have grown well in the past under these circumstances) and offer basic amenities (superior soil, natural rain water, attempts at weed control, a blanketing mulch to moderate extremes), and have faith that something will come of those modest efforts. It usually does. With wonder, we watch new sprouts emerge from the ground. With anticipation, we watch luscious leaves unfurl into succulent salad greens. With gratitude, we reap a harvest that has grown mainly without any effort on our part. The wonder is that it happens season after season, year after year, way more reliable than a slot machine...except for those few rare years that just go wrong. Even then, likely something went right or got done...and next year will be different.

One of the hardest things for beginning farmers is to have faith in this process of trusting that on the whole, things will go right and a crop will result. And to let go of the mostly erroneous notion that if we intervene with every little thing that seems to be going wrong, we will turn the course of things in a significant way. It's easy to overlook the energy--physical and emotional--that can be invested in watering to "save a crop" during a drought season when no water can be enough, compared to the small investment in simply making a second planting, mulched well, so that hopefully one or the other will be at the right stage to produce despite the drought, and perhaps both will bear full fruit after all, doubling the crop.

Mabel and the Hog--a Slaughterhouse Experience

Time is flying so quickly! There have been so many wonderful things going on, so many huge things going on, so many intense and uncertain things going on, that it is hard to stop long enough to write them down.

What happened today was so amazing that it demands my full attention, documented by recording the experience in this post.

It was a pretty routine take-cull-ewes-to-the-processing-plant day. We got everything ready last night, loaded them at Oh-Dark-Thirty (a.k.a. 5 a.m.), remembered to check the gas gage and take appropriate action, and chugged down the road to Bowsers Meat Processing.

There was a short wait while they did the two hogs in line before us, starting the morning off at a leisurely pace. As we whiled away the time on the back loading dock, another batch of hogs came in. The folks wandered over to talk to us after they unloaded--unexpected until we realized they are fellow Farmer's Market vendors. We rarely see one another except across the lot or on the way to the port-a-potty on Saturday mornings, so it was nice to exchange a few words.

When we went back inside, they were skinning our first ewe. That left Mabel alone in the kill pen, but the market vendor's hogs were in the pen right beside her. She was a little anxious about being the only sheep (just as she is at home if  she is separated from the flock for some reason), and "bahhed" a couple half-hearted protests. We spoke soothingly to her from across the room, while focusing mostly on the   skinning operation with the other ewe. Seeing the carcasses is important to us, because only without the skin can we really fully understand the body condition of our animals...wool hides a lot of fat and/or bones.

I glanced over at Mabel, and saw that she had turned to face the hogs. In fact, she had stuck her head through the bars of the kill pen, into the hog pen. Then I saw the hog! He moved over and touched noses with her. I expected her to pull away, because hogs can be pretty predatory with non-hog animals that they perceive as "food", and sheep are pretty wary about ANY new animal, even if it's just a sheep they don't know yet (or a friend that's just been sheared).

But she didn't pull away. Not even when the hog began exploring her face. She held perfectly still, not panicked or afraid, while the hog's wiggly snout moved over her cheek from nose to ear. I was poised to shout an alarm if the hog bit her. I've skinned out hog heads, years ago when I worked for Bowser. They have very sharp omnivores' teeth. In my imagination, the hog suddenly turned into a bloodthirsty monster and ripped poor Mabel's face off. Not so far-fetched when you consider that by this time I'd seen most of Mabel's right ear disappear temporarily into the hog's mouth, only to be released when the hog suddenly became interested in her eye. It  worked its mouth around her eye, then moved back to the ear. The only thing that kept me from screaming was the fact that Mabel had not tried to back off or stop the hog's overtures in any way.

By this time, my co-farmer, BH, had moved to my side. "He's calming her down," he observed. He has an almost uncanny understanding of herd animals sometimes, a real gift. I realized how quiet she had become, after her initial complaints about being flock-less. I watched the hog with a more open mind. Maybe he wasn't sizing up a meal, after all.

I realized that Mabel was relaxed. She was perfectly free to withdraw her head from between the bars and move a long way from the hogs. But she didn't. She stood perfectly still, eyes soft and not scared, and let the hog's face move alongside hers.

I realized the hog wasn't smacking his lips and salivating like some fiendish monster. He was gently lipping at Mabel's ear and face, caressing even. He withdrew slightly for a moment, and she stayed in place, apparently waiting for more of his exploration. He resumed after a pause, beginning with        sniffing her nose, then lipping at her eye and putting her ear in his mouth. He toyed with the plastic tag in her ear, and I held my breath, worried, that he might grab the tag and pull it out of her ear. But no, he  gently released her ear again.

After several minutes of this, she slowly withdrew her head from between the rails, and calmly waited for the rest of her time.

Usually, my sheep are afraid of the hogs--in fact, Mabel had NOT wanted to enter the building with the first few hogs in it, even though she had willingly stepped off the truck into the loading pen. It was very strange to see a sheep interact with a hog like this.

When I shared this novel experience with a friend later, they wondered whether it had changed my attitude about slaughtering my livestock. Now that I had witnessed this "act of compassion", would I have doubts about the ethics and morality of sending my sheep to be slaughtered.

Well, no. My thoughts on this haven't changed. Because my thoughts on this are very, very secure.

Mabel did not get to choose the time of her death. Well, I won't either. That means someone else (most likely God or a virus) will be choosing my death, just as I chose hers. Her death could also have been chosen by God or a virus, or a stomach worm, or a coyote. In most of those cases, it would have been much more drawn out and stressful for Mabel.

The death I chose for Mabel was mercifully quick, as always. A little stress from unfamiliar surroundings...probably akin to my experience of flying to Winnipeg about 7 years ago. A stranger stepping in to offer some unknowable sort of comfort or distraction. And then, in less than the blink of an eye, gone. I am not alone in thinking that I would wish this same death for myself were I suffering from a terminal ailment. Callous? Not the least. Pragmatic: "Natural causes" tend to be slow and full of pain and suffering. As I've said before, the slaughterhouse is the most humane end possible for a sheep life.