Friday, October 28, 2011

Grass Poetry

Wondering why in this country we so heavily subsidize corn and soybeans...when we could be putting our money into this:

What 8 year old wouldn't aspire to the adventure of farming if we did it this way?

Hallows Eve

30 years ago a couple of harrows were left leaning against the old Elm that grows on the little knoll where the quonset barn stands. They were set there by the man who as a boy grew up on this farm, who hauled potatoes down stairs to store in the cellar, who wouldn't stay inside to learn the organ as his Mother wished because he was out with his Father planting the towering stands of Swedish Black Forest and Red pine that flank the farmland to the Northwest and the South. They were set there half as if to be near at hand for another go around the field some Spring and half as a symbolic ornament of a rich and storied past. Over the years the Elm grew straighter, taller...but where the harrow leaned into it's flanks it widened and engulfed the iron as if it had opened a wide swallowing mouth and began to devour it whole...but finding the metal tough and perhaps too lightly salted, sits with it half eaten with a kind of grimace.

I had been looking for a harrow...and when I spied this one through the overgrowth I made towards it with the glee of a long at sea sailor making for hidden treasure. I rebuked the tree for its inconsiderate gluttony when I found the implement wedged fast. Halted as I was in my desire for field cultivation by my respect for the life of the Old Elm, I put away thoughts of ax and saw and stood marveling at the way life has of swallowing whole the past...

We have begun gathering up old horse-drawn field equipment: walking plows, cultivators, a potato plow...unearthing old ruins of past agriculture from back yards and overgrown pastures...our aim is to turn Little Flower Farm into a Draft-Powered Farm...our good faith effort for a smaller ecological footprint, and fossil-fuel-less farming. As I stood there chagrinned at the tree-gobbled harrow it occurred to me that the image I was beholding might have less to do with a chewing of the past...than with a preserving of it. Here this implement was: held fast. I was looking at an image of King Arthur's sword in the stone if ever there was one! A farm that has been labored over, cultivated, sworn at...a farm like that stays a farm, if even dormant...waiting for a new flock to bring back neglected pasturelands, and new blood to wed itself to the increasing of the fertility of the soil. I am amazed at what woody weeds and overgrown pasture becomes beneath the browsing noses of 9 sheep. The hill that sweeps up to the cozy old farmhouse has shed its fuzzy growth of invasive buckthorn and bends and rolls gracefully as the goats meander over it in contented and adventurous grazing. And all this is happening now! Now when all the rims of woods are a riot with color and when the photographer grows frenzied and frantic to capture on film what he experiences as he stands on the high hill of the sheep pasture and looks down on the field....impossible to achieve. Next Spring that field will grow green with new grass and clover. A quilt of CSA veggies will be painstakingly and meticulously worked at every April day onward....but for now the plain contours of the land and the final hurrah of all the leaves of all the trees drive far from the heart desire for green things....only reveling in the dying of the year.

Halloween's time honored (and child-worshiped) custom of trick or treating harkens back to an Old English tradition of begging "soul cakes" at neighbors' doors...chanting and promising prayers for the departed of the family in return for the sweets...
"soul, soul, an apple or two,
if you haven't got an apple, a pear will do,
one for Peter, two for Paul
and three for the Man who made us all"

As all the trees drop their leaves...and all the fields are being put to bed for their well earned is hard not to remember all the dead...and the past lives of all the animals and plants and people that held their sway and had their day on this farm...

I went begging for a harrow of an old Elm today. I found myself promising to remember the dead...long after the last cow here was milked, the last post pounded, the last ground tilled...that harrow was set to rest, put to wait in the waiting arms of tree-bark....until the time when someone would bend near, up on the knoll, just past the old rusting Oliver tractor, and whisper a promise to trade life for life:

soul, soul, a harrow or two,
if you haven't got a harrow, a seed will do,

one for the farmer who went before, two for the farmer now,

and three for the families who in Summer will eat the fruit of the old drawn plow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Gone West

An update: One week before we began our journey to Marine on St. Croix, and our new farm, we slaughtered our 100 broiler chickens in the morning mist. All animals look sleek and epic, as if accompanied by their own motion picture soundtrack when photographed in the gloaming.

Stretching necks, beheading, scalding, plucking and eviscerating are not often poetic tasks...but in the morning, with little between you and pastured chicken dinner besides a little perseverance and the sublime quiet, it becomes meditative.

On Friday we began to take down all of our fence panels. For us, fencing is our farm. It's our life savings. It means managed grassland, pastured meat, milk, and cheese. It is everything. So there was no question in our minds that we would baffle the neighbors and proceed to take down every last t-post and panel that we had erected only months before, and load them into the U-haul. Shane and I were about 1/3 of the way through when I began to doubt my matter, so to speak. Pastor Mark from down the road suddenly appeared before me and I let out a cry of unbridled relief. "Are you okay?" He asked, startled by my unrestrained emotion, "Yes!" I replied, gesturing to the hundreds of feet of fencing, " it's just that I've discovered that I'm not God after all!"

With his help every last panel and post was resting sedately in the moving truck by nightfall.

Sunday night we stuffed all our sheep and goats and chickens and kittens into a trailer and prepared for an early morning start...
In the hours before our departure it had begun to rain steadily. The yard and gullies were awash in rainwater at 3:30 in the morning when we slowly rolled out of the driveway and yard. I watched and honked in dismay as the caravan drove off in the darkness and I was left stuck in the mud, my front tires half covered in slosh. I stood outside in the pouring rain and tried to figure out what a decent farm wife was to do in a situation such as this. In past experiences it always seemed that the kitchen always held the answer to any I reached back into the car and pulled out one of my solid bamboo cutting boards to wedge underneath the no avail. Mud spattered and desperate, lacking only widowhood, starvation, and a sick baby in my arms, I proceeded to pound at neighbors' doors for help....finally the valiant and gallant Mr. Bailey and kind Mrs came to my rescue and managed to get me out of the mire....and we were off.....

Our next adventure came at breakfast time. For the first time in our lives we stopped at an Arby's. We ordered chicken sandwiches to give us new vigour for Chicago and the journey ahead....Perhaps there is something to all that gibberish you hear talk of about "balance in the Universe" because one of our laying hens escaped from the trailer, vented for airflow, and proceed to squawk madly and run about the parking lot...apparently when organic pasture farmers go in for fast food chicken...somewhere, somehow, a Free-Range laying hen wages all out protest....we nearly lost her because we could hardly run we were so doubled over in laughter. I was literally chasing a chicken around an Arby's parking lot with a half-eaten chicken sandwich in my seemed too absurd to be happening...and yet there we were. Eventually we cornered her as she made last desperate and futile attempts to pass through the glass door and into Arby's...presumably to state her outrage...

Touch and go traffic in Chicago hours later provided ample entertainment to our fellow a few more of the hens escaped through the vented door and commenced with a balancing act on the rear fender...the sign language for chickens coming out your back end is universal. I watched driver after driver zoom up alongside Shane and frantically pantomime "Hey there! birds back there! Coming out of your trailer, yo!"

Eventually we made it to Marine on St. Croix, and our new farm, with the big red barns, and where the Little Flower Farm menagerie experience woods and fields and pastures to their hearts' content...

Last week was spent putting up hundreds and hundreds of feet of that fencing...a new paddock for the goats, with woods and pasture, and all the buckthorn they can eat...and a huge space for the icelandic sheep, and a hay field. Yesterday we made our first batch of fresh chevre since the move. Today two dump truck loads of composted manure were delivered to the site of next year's CSA veggie field, and we will be preparing the fields in a few weeks. Frost sowings of clover and grasses in the pastures are in the works, and a historic landmark is once again beginning to breathe with new life.
I marvel at a landscape so beautiful largely because of the efforts of the farmer who built this farm before us... years ago in the 30s and 40s. His son planted the pines that tower above us, sway and rush in the wind, and create such a visually stunning landscape...

We hope to also change the face of this land...with responsible and loving management and cultivation. I have already seen our farm in the contours of these 25 acres, and I am watching it take shape before me, smoothly becoming what we envisioned when we first laid eyes upon it...every October, and especially this one, brings such wells of gratitude within the heart. And Gratitude is what grows things.