It’s the Atmosphere

September 30, 2010

My sister and brother-in-law are antique postcard dealers and frequently send me wonderful old cards on farm themes. This example of rural humor is from the early 20th century. Isn’t it great? It’s the Atmosphere that does it here.

Our Adirondack atmosphere is currently very dark and rainy. Flash flood warnings have been issued. Though up in the peaks I don’t have to worry — I like to say Katika is the highest cow in New York State — the rivers in the valleys will overrun and flood the roads. I brought the cattle and Birch in last night for a break but they’ll be out in the downpour all day today. Perhaps I will turn them out in the barn paddock where they can watch the pounding rain from under the run-in shelter.

We need the rain. Maybe my winter rye will even have a chance to germinate before the predicted hard freeze this weekend. However with clouds swirling along the ground the views are uninspiring.

The chickens’ tails droop and trail in the mud. My sheep look like dripping sponges. The pigs love mud, but not in a raw wind. They have been curled up in the pig palace, burrowed under warm hay. I think, apart from milking and barn chores, I will similarly spend the day close to home.

Holding Pattern

September 29, 2010

I haven’t written about work moving ahead on the garage apartment because it has been stalled for ten days. O.B. had another job to finish. He had warned me that he would only be in for half-days, but in fact he wasn’t in at all.

I saw him briefly last night. He had a man helping him and was moving sheetrock outside and upstairs in the rain. Rain! On sheetrock! I forced myself not to jump out of my truck screaming.

O.B. told me that the sheet-rocking has been put off another week. This makes the third reschedule. I had no words. It was unclear to me if the problem is due to O.B. or the subcontractor — but I did know that self-control required me to keep my mouth shut.

“I’m very anxious to have everything ready for the bank appraiser,” I said simply.

“I know, dear,” said O.B.

I drove home repeating the Serenity Prayer.

Thank you, Prince Charles

September 28, 2010

When Larry and I went to the slaughterhouse last week, we picked up my six lambs and two old ewes, now in frozen plastic packages.

I had planned to have the meat from Clover and Mary, my two aged ewes, simply ground into burger. In winter I make a great shepherd’s pie — ground meat, corn and peas, topped with mashed potatoes — every couple of weeks. However when I was writing up my choices, John the butcher suggested I have at least half the aged meat made into sweet Italian sausage.

Lucy and I tried some for supper last night. I should have ordered more. It is very good.

I formed the sausage into patties and grilled it in a pan on the stovetop. It’s not as fatty as pork sausage, so doesn’t sizzle and pop in the same way and could as easily have been baked. The lower fat also makes it slightly less tender, so you have to be careful not to cook it dry. However, without pork as an ingredient there is no reason to grill it to well-done. Lucy and I were both happily surprised. It is delicious.

There was only one thing. Here is the vacuum-sealed package.

Yes, it says “lamb.”

Lamb is the meat from a sheep less than a year old. The meat from a sheep over two years old is called “mutton.” Clover and Mary were almost nine. Their meat is definitely mutton. But there is a powerful prejudice against the idea of mutton these days.

Until the 20th century, mutton was eaten everywhere. Since sheep were kept for wool, few farmers could afford to butcher lambs. It was only old sheep that went to slaughter. Thus through the 1800s mutton was a familiar food in English-speaking countries. (In The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien, a troll sighs, “Mutton yesterday, mutton today, and blimey, if it don’t look like mutton again tomorrer.”) References to mutton entered the language:  “mutton-chop whiskers,” “leg-of-mutton sleeves.” These people knew their cuts of sheep.

One hundred and fifty years later, sheep as a species are out of favor. Wool is less popular than yarns spun from old soda bottles. Mutton is unknown in the United States. Relatively few Americans even eat lamb. I asked around at a fancy party last Christmas and everyone at my table made a face.

This presents shepherds with a problem. If succulent lamb is hard to market, what to do with aged ewes?

A lot of them go for dog food. That expensive “lamb and rice” kibble? Mutton for sure. Still, dog food alone can’t rescue the sheep industry.

Enter Prince Charles. Now, I’m sneakingly fond of the Prince of Wales. He has a kind of nerdy earnestness that is very familiar to me. He too is passionately dedicated to unpopular and old-fashioned topics that make him the butt of jokes among hipper people. In fact, except for a few hundreds of millions of dollars, we’re practically twins.

In 2004, Price Charles launched The Mutton Renaissance, a campaign with the stated goal: Putting Mutton Back on the Menu.

The Prince held press conferences to announce that mutton is one of his favorite dishes and it’s unbeatable with caper sauce. “When I was your age, I lived off mutton,” he told presumably mystified school children, weaned on Chicken McNuggets.

I am afraid the Prince may be tilting at windmills. Still,  I’m grateful to him for his gallant efforts to support small sheep farmers and raise homely mutton’s profile.

In the meantime, my sweet Italian sausage is delicious — though its deceptive packaging will remain a perfect example of the old idiom, “mutton dressed as lamb.”

The Gleaners

September 27, 2010

I’ve always liked this painting, The Gleaners, by Jean François Millet. It shows three women gleaning wheat in France. In the background one can see the farmer or overseer loading the heavy sheaves of the harvested crop on a cart stacked high. The women in the foreground are peasants, gleaning the fallen heads of grain. If you look closely you can see that each has a small fistful of wheat stalks but they are actually picking up stray seedheads by hand. It dawns on you that these are very, very poor and hungry women.

I was fascinated to read on Wikipedia that the public reaction when it was painted in 1857 was uniformly negative. The response was as if a current artist painted a beautifully moody oil of women pawing through a dumpster. It was seen as a political tract, a glorification of rural poverty particularly unwelcome after the French Revolution.

Lucy and I were gleaning in the school’s pumpkin patch yesterday. We were neither poverty-stricken nor hungry, but my cow Katika loves pumpkin, sliced up small with the sharp edge of a spade — so after the school’s pumpkin harvest we drove down to the patch to collect the frost-nipped, broken, or deer-bitten ones.

They were considerably easier to spot than stray grains of wheat.

We found fourteen big pumpkins. Katika, her steer calf Rocky, and the pigs will be snacking like kings.

Lucy also wanted to harvest apples from our own apple tree to make a pie. This apple tree is very old. I am guessing Scott planted it in the 1940s. When I bought the property the tree was half-smothered on the edge of the overgrown forest. Now it is on the edge of our north pasture. Most of the apples are small and scabby. Still, they are crunchy and sweet and the cows, horses, chickens, and pigs love them. I’ve even seen a deer standing on its hind legs, reaching up for an elusive fruit.

While I spread the last of the winter rye seed on the back acres, Lucy picked apples. I’d brought out a ladder but that was too wobbly on the sloping, rocky ground. She preferred the direct route.

She gathered a half-bushel and I imagine after supper this week we will be peeling and chopping for pies and apple sauce.

A nice, quiet day. I’d meant to go to church but by the time I finished milking in the morning I felt too rushed for the hour-long round-trip drive. Instead I puttered in the warm kitchen, baking whole wheat bread and making mozzarella cheese, while Lucy finished her homework at the kitchen table.

We collected eggs at evening chores and had egg salad on fresh bread, tomatoes, and roasted pumpkin seeds for a simple supper. Very peaceful and, to me, soothing.

It is slightly surreal to get emails from DH and think of him on the other side of the world, eating eels and raw fish with chopsticks.

Finishing the seeding

September 26, 2010

Our weather has been odd — freakishly hot, in the low 80s on Friday, and then dropping back into blustery chill. I spent yesterday putting on and off clothing as the weather shifted hour by hour.

It was 60° and sunny in the early morning when our Haflinger Punch left. He loaded like a champ and I gave him a reassuring pat as he bugled anxiously. I think he is going to a fine home where he will be happy. Short of keeping all animals myself, this is the best I can hope for.

Lucy’s elderly horse Birch was unnerved to find himself alone. I brought him into the barn for his breakfast at the time of parting, to distract him, and then brought in Katika and Rocky, her steer calf, to keep him company.

After the trailer carrying Punch pulled out for Vermont, I turned Birch and the cows back out in the south pasture. Rocky galloped happily up the hill, bucking. I think to Birch’s lonely old eyes he might have looked like a pony, for Birch galloped after him eagerly. When he got close he dropped back to a walk and gave the calf a disgusted look. “Oh, it’s just you.”

The wind picked up, the sky darkened, the temperature fell, and it started to rain. I had to finish seeding the back acres. There have been so many competing chores this past week that I’ve only been able to give this task a lick and a promise. So once again rain was dripping off my baseball cap as I plodded in the mud.

When I’ve spread the last two bags of winter rye today, I will have spread — hand-cranking from my shoulder bag — 1800 pounds of seed. Just shy of a ton. It’s not quite enough but the feed store can’t get any more this season. I confess I’m slightly relieved.

The first section I planted ten days ago is already starting to come up. You can see the faint haze of green.

The upper quarter I seeded nine days ago has done nothing. The difference is that I rolled the first section. I’ve always heard that “rolling in” seed makes a difference, but this was dramatic proof.

In its cleaning frenzy, the school had dumped an old steel lawn roller, probably from the 1960s. I’d grabbed it. It was rusted and its rubber cork had rotted out, but Leon had told me to stop at the hardware store and get a furnace plug. “It’ll be fine.” Filled with water, the roller weighs about 400 pounds. I pull it with my truck.

The theory is that the weight of the roller presses the seed into the ground. It’s hard to tell you’re making any difference — on my bumpy ground it’s hard even to see where you’ve passed — but the results speak for themselves. Yesterday after seeding I drove up and down the field in the wind and rain. The second half of the field was so rough and rocky that the poor steel roller resembled hammered tin by the end of the day. This farm is not for sissies.

At one point I was circling the field when I came upon something strange. What? The roller was in front of the truck. Yes, I’d lost my hitch pin and proceeded to “roll” around the entire field without the roller. Oh, where was Allen to laugh at me? I could picture him smiling and shaking his head in mock despair.

(This is a perfect example why I should always hire others to run dangerous equipment. When it comes to machines, I just don’t pay enough attention. The 400-lb roller tugs and jerks on the truck frame with every bump in the field, banging noisily, yet lost in a daydream I’d never noticed when my ride turned oddly smooth and quiet.)

Not long afterward I was walking and cranking, spreading seed in the rain and missing my old friend, when my cell phone rang. I could hear nothing over the roaring wind. “Who is it? Who? Hold on a minute and I’ll get in my truck so I can hear you.”

It was Leon. He was calling to thank me for some photographs I sent him. He and Joyce are going to bring their children out to play with Lucy. I told him I was finishing up the seeding. He seemed pleased.

“Well, get back to it!”

I hung up smiling to myself.

A quiet evening

September 25, 2010

Last night I was home alone. I can’t think of the last time that happened. DH is in Tokyo. Jon was working. And Lucy was on a horseback overnight camping trip with friends. (I heard her say to herself as she was packing her gear, “I’ll take a book but I don’t need a hairbrush. That would be excessive.”)

Since there was no one to hurry home to cook dinner for, I moved the sheep at sunset. It was peaceful in Betty’s pasture in the gathering dusk, just me and the sheep. Here they are, waiting at the fenceline for me to let them onto new grass.

Sunset now is just after 6:30 PM and seems earlier due to the mountains hedging our horizons.

The crickets and cicadas are quiet now. The swallows left weeks ago. Leaves are turning. We’ve had killing frosts and in the mornings I’ve found ice in the water troughs. Geese fly over, honking.

Fall is here.

Ladies of the Land

September 24, 2010

Please click here and watch the ninety-second trailer for a fun little documentary, Ladies of the Land. I’d heard about the film and its director/producer, Megan Thompson, was kind enough to send me a copy.

Ladies of the Land chronicles the rise of single women in farming. The documentary profiles four women farmers, mostly middle-aged, showing how they got into the job and the joy they receive from it. The film didn’t teach me anything I didn’t know, but it is touching and funny by turns and gave me a warm feeling of solidarity.

I am not personally acquainted with anyone who is trying to do what I am doing. I do know a few women, mostly younger, who are farming but they are either just out of college, working as interns, or farming alongside their husbands, who pull half or more of the weight.

Swimming against the mainstream can be lonely. For me it’s nothing new. I’ve been odd man out as long as I can remember, a child buried in a book or slipping through the woods, lost in a daydream. I’m Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, evading Tarleton’s men! My siblings thought I was peculiar. (I was peculiar.) In school I found girls’ cliques baffling. My interests — nature and history — were always so different from those of anyone I knew. It wasn’t until I was a new mother in my twenties that I had something powerful in common with females my age and developed a real network of women friends.

Still, trying to homestead farm in the 21st century, especially in a non-farming area, brings one to a whole new level of “different.” Most people just can’t understand the impulse. Milk a cow? Raise pigs and sheep? Learn carpentry? Of course I’m odd, eccentric, strange. (O.B. remarked to my friend Larry that as a child I must have eaten a few too many paint chips!) I’ve also heard I’m a lesbian.  Or turning into the Unabomber.

Meanwhile DH is supportive but doesn’t share my passion for the pastoral. If I’m something out of Laura Ingalls Wilder, he’s half city boy, loving art galleries and opera, and half Jeremiah Johnson, footloose, a mountain explorer, always wanting to know what’s beyond the next peak. His involvement in the farm is minimal. He’s only been inside my barn a couple of times. At dinner he will pause ceremonially with his fork and knife held over a steak, inquiring, “Which bull is this?”

I have always found like-minded companions in history books. And, in recent years, on the internet.

In 2004 I joined a list of about 20 family cow owners, mostly women, from around the country. Now the KEEPING A FAMILY COW message board has over 2000 members from all over the world. What is happening with Midge’s Jersey herd in New Zealand? How is Claire’s Guernsey, Isabelle, in Ohio? What’s the news from Jessika in Maine or Tammy in Virginia or Liz in Texas or Laurie in Kansas or Janene in Nebraska or Regina in Oregon?

KFC has become a community of friends and far-flung “neighbors” who celebrate each other’s successes and grieve for each other’s losses. We share cooking recipes and deworming regimens, brag about our canning or show off our gardens and new babies. When Katika was sick, it was Milkmaid the pre-vet student in Wyoming that I longed to have by my side. We come together from all different backgrounds and belief systems. What we have in common is our connection to the land.

Ladies of the Land carries a similarly heartwarming affirmation for women interested in farming: You may be unusual, but you’re not alone.

A cheerful little film, with terrific music that will make smile and tap your toes, if not jump up and finish mucking the barn. Watch it if you can.

My Friend, the Leprechaun

September 23, 2010

Larry helping me build the cabin, 2007

My friend Larry helped me take my bull Charles Bronson to the butcher yesterday. Larry is short and Irish and laughing. I am not well known in our town, but Larry is. When we drive down the street, half the men in trucks are waving to him. Last fall I met a man who exclaimed happily, “Oh, you must know the leprechaun!”

I’ve known Larry for over 20 years. He’s a decade younger, a mere boy with a thick Irish accent when I first met him. But such is Larry’s outsized personality and confidence that I tend to think of him as my age or even older. He’s a very warm and very reassuring person.

“Sure, you’re nuts,” he said to me cheerfully as we set out. “But that’s why we like you.”

Long ago Larry and I butted heads. We are equally opinionated. He believed someone was not a trustworthy friend. I stuck up for this person. Larry was proved right, and he only rubs it in a few times every time we see each other.

The main thing about Larry is that he is dependable, unflappable, and kind. After getting up with DH I was almost lightheaded with tiredness. I’ve been sad anyway and then slaughterhouse days always fill me with grief. I had the usual lump in my throat when we loaded Charlie.

Charlie and Katika in August

As Larry managed the borrowed trailer, the balky barn doors, and the driving, I was reminded of the scene between Father and the child Corrie in Corrie Ten Boom’s Holocaust memoir The Hiding Place, when Corrie asks Father a difficult question and he tells her some knowledge is too heavy, that she must trust him to carry the weight for her.

It tends to be my role to be the pragmatic, practical person who pushes through to get a tough emotional job done. But not this day. Though I was along for the five-hour ride, Larry took charge. He carried the weight of the slaughterhouse trip for me. He made all the decisions and warmed me with stories.

It’s hard to express how much such kindness means. Thank you, Larry. Godspeed, Charlie.


September 22, 2010

DH left this morning to fly to Tokyo and then Seoul for work. He will be gone  ten days. DH’s father has been ill and between that, DH’s hectic office schedule, and, for me, the activities at the farm, this trip snuck up on us almost as a surprise.

I have been ironing shirts and trousers, picking up his blazer from the dry cleaners, and generally trying to get him ready. Lucy was intrigued to see the shoe polish out, and demanded that I teach her how to polish shoes.

Shoe polishing seems to be a dying art. My father polished his shoes at least once a week, and gave them a quick brush-up any time they were scuffed. Long ago he’d built his own shoe-shine kit, which lived under his side of my parents’ double bed. The kit was simple and neat, with cubbies for all the tubes of Meltonian cream polish, tins of Kiwi wax polish, brushes, and soft cloths. I have it now. Just hearing the click of the latch throws me back to being eight years old, lying on the white candlewick bedspread, watching Daddy polish his shoes before church.

Lucy loved the different tools: the daubing brush, the buffing brush, the shine cloths. She labored over DH’s dress shoes.

“Wow, this really does work! Look at that shine!” What fun. “Why don’t people do this any more?”

Obviously sneakers and blue plastic Crocs seemed suddenly unsatisfactory.

I told her that the actor Pat O’Brien said that in the 1920s you could pick out all the struggling actors on Broadway because they had to shine their own shoes and had scuffed heels, rather than the slick ones you’d get if you had the money to pay for a shoe-shine. (I love the idea of folks making social judgments based on heel scuffs.) Lucy applied herself to DH’s heels.

DH left for the airport at 4 AM, with his bag over his shoulder, his briefcase in one hand, and his travel mug of sweet tea in the other. We’ll certainly miss him while he’s on the other side of the world, but it’s good to know his shoes will be gleaming.

Hay man

September 21, 2010

I have a new hay man. Yes, another of my old guys has retired. I hated to say goodbye to Joe, who delivered hay to me for almost a decade. Joe is in his seventies. Though he was still vigorously climbing on top of the load and tossing bales into my loft, his wife’s arthritis was kicking up. Helping to bring in 6000 bales of hay every year had become too tough for her. Joe leased out his fields and quit the business.

Joe was another of the old school working men. If you made an appointment for a 10 AM delivery, Joe would arrive at 9:30 or even 9:15 to untie the ropes lashing the hay to the truckbed. This kept you on your toes, and could sometimes lead to an amusing situation in which you had unloaded the hay before the time he was due to arrive.

I found a new hay man on Craigslist this summer. His name is Rick, and he’s my age. A friendly fellow, but he’s Not Joe.

With the first delivery he was an hour late. With the second, I waited for three hours until finally I had to leave to go out to dinner. I heard nothing from Rick that night or the next day. In exasperation I was making arrangements with another hay dealer when I arrived at the barn to find that Rick had belatedly delivered the load. He hadn’t been able to toss all the bales into the loft without a helper so had stacked the last fifty in the barn aisle. I could not bring animals in or out. I was fuming.

However, such is my schoolteacher’s affection for dyslexic boys that it was impossible for me to stay angry when I received Rick’s apologetic email, which said, twice:

“Sorry for the mics-up.”

Rick is due to come with hay this morning. I hope there are no more mics-ups.