Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Rootbound

“Build a life you don’t need a vacation from.” That phrase haunts me from its whimsical background as I scroll through FaceBook. Sometimes it is plastered over a beach chair, sometimes it is in fake cursive over a mountain top. The meme sparkles in its simplicity, and I hate it.

I am a business person. I am a farmer. I am a woman with a Great Pyrenees that acts as a reverse Swiffer sweeper and deposits piles of dust throughout my house. Many times I am exhausted. I am brain dead; mentally checked out from a life of constant worry over water levels and pasture rotation, and do we have groceries for tonight, or laundry done for tomorrow? Did I get all the invoicing caught up this afternoon, what should I write in a blog for work’s website?

I think it is the story of the modern farmer to live and breathe a never ending checklist of important tasks in rotation. Most of us have to work a 8-5 job in addition to the farm to make ends meet. I would say that is doubly so as a woman farmer, but that could just be my perspective because Captain America could care less about the dirt on the floor and whether or not the counters are clean at nine o’clock when we roll in from feeding everyone after working our 8-5 jobs and start our dinner. I still care and will numbly fold laundry while the oven preheats or I’ll wash a couple dishes while the Keurig whirs. Given all this, you might think then that I crave vacations as a break from the constant stress, but I don’t.

I crave them for novelty.

I become root bound in my little pot of processes that I do day in and day out. I curl in on myself in a constant stream of chores that I try to perform more and more efficiently every day, until exhaustion and compassion fatigue obscure why I chose this life in the first place. I need to be uprooted. I need to be taken out of my tight little space and have myself gently stretched out into the wide world so that when I get planted again I have room to grow, room to appreciate everything again.

Image by Keith Williamson. Click here to learn more.

I went to the beach with girl friends for a few days, and while I was SUPER stressed about leaving everything I am SO glad that I did. I came back and I am rejuvenated.

Fence down? Eh, no problem. Have you seen how gorgeous the sky is today? Wow, just talk about blue.
Can’t find a new calf? Aren’t they great hiders? Man, it is so nice to wander around the woods looking in all these little hidey holes. This is such a cool tree! Hey, are those blackberries?
New calf was actually out in the yard? Aw! Isn’t he adorable? Breaking through fences already and he isn’t even 24 hours old! You’re a precocious little buddy, aren’t ya?

Folks, even hammering in fence posts becomes an enjoyable act when I have been away from it for a while. CA and I spent Sunday afternoon starting in on the fences for the rotational grazing program that we are implementing and I was humming, laughing, and turning it into a rousing game of “how many thumps of the t-post driver does it take” that I didn’t mind consistently losing. I loved every exhausting minute of it. 

God, it is good to be home!

Oh, and we did manage to get the new baby back in the fence with minimal bruising. (On CA's part, not the calf's.)


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Great Wheatlage Debacle of 2017

CA and I argued over the best way to utilize the wheat that we planted just to keep the hillside from eroding over the winter because the beans didn't come out until almost October and everyone said that that was too late to plant grass seed then. Well, except for my dad who didn't chime in on the subject until after it was too late to plant the grass seed and use the wheat to protect it. Which was brilliant, and would have worked SWIMMINGLY, but we didn't know. 

Dad also suggested using a slit seeder to plant the grass over the wheat, but no one that I could find had one big enough to plant 40 acres with; but that was okay because Mark (the professional farmer who rents my parent's row crop ground) said that what we really needed to do was frost seed it anyway. Which was great, except that you do that in January, and it was February already; oh and BTW, didn't you know? You really need to plant grass seed in August, not the spring. And definitely not just disk up the wheat and plant it in grass like I had discussed with him in the fall.

So, CA and I are staring at the lovely wheat field with tiny baby grass and clover being choked out by the foot high wheat and we get the idea to hay it since using it as pasture would hurt the new grass. (Which I have to baby the shit out of because it was planted too late.) So we think about, and agree that haying it is the way to go. Even though neither of us has ever seen anyone bale wheat before as anything other than straw. The farmer's hereabouts usually either let it go and harvest it or spray it with a desiccant and plant over it.


It is April and too wet to technically hay it, so we will have to rent or borrow someone's equipment to "haylage" it. Which is where you take wet grass and bale it, and then wrap it in plastic wrap to let it ferment and become silage. It requires heavier duty balers as well as a special bale wrapper. So I call up Mark and ask him if he knows anyone who might be able to rent our their equipment or possibly just pay to bale and wrap it.

And wouldn't you know? According to Mark wheatlage is great for cows and the dairy he used to work at always made wheatlage. But he hadn't shared that information with me previously, I guess presuming that I knew with some innate farmer wisdom in my blood that wheatlage would be cow crack. I didn't spend weeks thinking I must be crazy, because I had never seen this done before. No, not at all. That didn't happen.

You know, everyone talks about the barriers to entry of farming and they always talk about how damned expensive it is or how hard land is to get, and that is 100% true; but sweet mother of God what about this awesome pool of knowledge that isn't being shared? 


I read articles where authors are chastising my generation of farmers for treating permaculture and other farming practices as things that they just discovered and I get it. We are a bunch of egotistical millennials. Perhaps we do have a lofty idea of ourselves, but do you want to know why we feel like we just discovered the best farming practice ever? That we must be the originator? Because no one is telling us about them. In many cases we are having to constantly reinvent the wheel, and we shouldn't be.

I have grown up on a farm. I have great mentors and resources at my disposal and I still feel like I am having to pass some sort of weird initiation where all these older farmers are testing my farming instincts in order to give access to their knowledge. I can't even imagine how hard it is for my peers who haven't been blessed with that background. It seriously wouldn't surprise me if I happen to slop my way up a mountain sized pile of cow manure to talk to some old timer about my sea kelp research only to have him tell me that it is great and he has been using it since 1975. Well h-e-double hockey sticks, why didn't I know that already?

All humor aside though fellas, I know you're not doing this on purpose; but please realize that "you don't know what you don't know" and the next generation of farmers needs you to teach us. Desperately. Yes, some of us (myself included) have weird a$$ ideas about grassfed, and organics; but those things don't change the basic knowledge that you can share. We need you to have a conversation with us. When we tell you in September that we want to plant grass seed, instead of just saying that it is to late, tell us about cover crops that could work. Or try something like, "Hey, you know cows, but you don't know much about row cropping. You just said you are worried about erosion, have you thought about this annual crop (corn/soy/sudan grass/freaking rutabagas) that we could plant after the winter wheat; but have out before August so that you can plant the grass for your future hayfield in the best time frame? I know you want forage for the cows. How about wheatlage? Cows freaking LOVE wheatlage."

And you guys and gals, the next generation, my generation? Don't discount others just because they're using Round-Up and spreading nitrogen. Don't turn off your ears the minute you hear row-crop. They have been doing this a long time and just because they don't farm the way you and I do/want to doesn't mean that they don't know what they are doing, or that all of their knowledge is somehow flawed. It is time that we all stepped up to the table and swapped stories. The agriculture community as a whole will be much better off because of it if we do.

Me? I think I'm going to start hanging out at the local Farm Bureau's pinochle night, or maybe Hardee's at breakfast, and hope that I might overhear something new. If nothing else at least the great wheatlage debacle of 2017 did do one thing. It showed me how much I don't know.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Horse Heaven

When I was 13 we had a mare with a dummy foal. I can remember loading Cash in the trailer and mom and I putting the pretty little chestnut filly in the bed of the truck to rush her to the closest equine specialist we knew - two hours away. I laid next to that baby, soothing her as much as I could with touch and voice until I could barely keep my head up. If I sit and think about it I can still feel the texture of her baby fuzz against my forehead.

There, I dreamed.

She and I were in a large meadow so lush and beautiful that there aren't words capable of describing its verdance. We stood, or rather knelt, on one side of a crystal clear stream; it wasn't very wide, but it burbled and sang better than any sound machine I've ever heard. Across from us, dotting the greenery like exotic flowers, were horses of every shape, size, and color. They grazed and frolicked with joy that still brings tears to my eyes.

As the filly, Hope, tried to stand one horse peeled off and trotted up to us. He whickered encouragingly at her, with his silken black mane streaming. At the time I didn't recognize the kind of loving sounds a mare makes to her baby when it is first born, but I do now. I sat there in a stupor as she rose on her wobbly little legs and stretched towards that shining ebony stallion, but then I gathered my wits and called her back. I told her about her mama, and what we were trying to do to help her and she came back to me.

Then I woke up. I don't know why. I talked to my mom for a few minutes, and again laid my head down on her neck. 

I was instantly right back by the stream. Hope had wandered closer to it in my absence, but I called her back again. The stallion stood patiently, nickering and whinnying at her in a language that, like many "horse people," I've always wished I could know. 

But there I knew. He was calling her to his side of that brook just like I kept calling her to mine. He had the deepest brown eyes, so full of love and compassion. It is weird to remember them so clearly after so long.

I repeated the process of waking and dreaming three more times before I fell back asleep on her rapidly stilling body. She had crossed the stream then, while I was away and didn't call her back; she was running and playing with all the ease that she should have had in life. Many of the horses greeted and groomed her just like they would an old herd mate - nuzzling and nibbling on her beautifully arched little neck. I wanted to call her back again, to beg her to come back to me, but I couldn't bring myself to take her away from such happiness.

I watched that herd for what felt like forever, their sleek coats reflected the bright sunlight, all of them were in prime condition, and perfectly happy munching grasses amongst the wildflowers and shade trees. I came to think of it as my brush with heaven, and after that dying (which had terrified me before) wasn't so scary anymore.

I came home at lunch and found Gymmy, one of the horses, down. He had a freak accident earlier today that broke his ankle and had to be euthanized.

Gymnasium Joe, I'm going to miss your cantankerous soul and so will your herd mates, but I can only pray that you crossed that stream happily and are gamboling your giant heart out in a body that won't fail you now.


RIP big boy. Say hi to everyone for me.

Morning Ruminations...

When I was in high school I absolutely HATED getting up an extra hour early so that I could feed and water horses before I went to class. There were even mornings that I would feed everyone and then take a nap in the tack room while they were eating. I am pretty sure that there is still a cup and spoon in there from where I ate my cereal on the fly and washed it out, but could spare there extra two minutes to walk it back to the house because that would mean getting up two minutes earlier.

While I’m still bad about not changing shoes after I feed, much to the chagrin of my housekeeper – me, I have found myself greeting the mornings with a lot more ardor lately. Why may that be?

Well, the majority of the cows now live in Illinois! Can I get a whoo hoo?


That was an ordeal in and of itself. The highlights? Watching a calf magically turn boneless and wriggle under the catch pen like a gigantic furry eel. Roping the same calf with the skill of a kindergarten mutton buster and trying desperately to hold onto him long enough for CA to move the trailer into place so he could ship with his mama. It was like a bad version of Gulliver’s Travels – the lariat wound around my legs and threatened to topple me over while I was hauling back on an enraged calf that was lunging away from me like a hound of hell. I’m pretty sure he turned into the Hulk. Like 90% sure. He should not have been that strong… And then there is 32, also known affectionately as “Hateful B!tch.” HB got that nickname from the guy at the sale barn, and boy, has it proven to be true. Not only did she run through panels a few times to escape the move. She ran through me, kicked me as she went by, and then sailed over three fences with skills that I have seen 17 hand thoroughbred hunter jumpers envy. I wasn’t sure if I should be pissed, or just impressed honestly. I’m still not. Thank God she jumped in with the neighbor’s herd. It took them a couple days to catch her and even then she tried to go through people, 6” gaps between trailers, trailer windows… you know, anything. She charges the side of the trailer if I walk by. She has an appointment with the processor because I’m not sure that any fence we have will hold her, and I don’t really want to have calves that are that crazy. Plus, you know what they say: hate is the best sauce… that B is going to be delicious.

Anywho, now that the cows live over here it means I have an hour of watering to do over at my grandpa’s place before I go to work in the morning. I am consistently surprised that I love it. I don’t know what happened to 14 year old me and my avoiding getting up early for any reason, because here I am sitting on a rock pile SnapChatting cow pictures to my friends as I wait for the troughs to fill.

When your friend posts a picture because they look good (Panda),
 and don't really care about how dumb you look (Bertha Mae).

Now if only I could make myself use chore boots. I still freaking hate vacuuming. Perhaps I’m not so different than I was at 14 after all.