Friday, December 28, 2007

Who's Running the Farm?

Who really runs a farm? In fact, where did the phrase ever originate, "to run a farm"? More true is the phrase, "to run a-muck". We could add... on a farm. Or, "to run down", or "to run hog-wild", or "to run away". That last one would be "from the farm".

In the cold wet of winter in western Oregon's Coast Range, when the mud is knee deep and icy and all the leaves blown off the trees, there is time to sit down for a bit. This year, while sitting, I realized with some clarity that instead of running our farm, our farm is running us. This is not a good thing.

Ever since we arrived four years ago to pick up where the old timers and hippies left off, we appear to have lost our business skills of reasoning and strategy; replaced by gut reaction and salvage operations. And it's not just the farm in control. There is the weather, the land, the wild creatures of the forests and the air, and life and death that also appear to be driving the momentum.

When I think of what we didn't know when we first arrived, I am surprised we are either not maimed, dead, or gone from here. Just dumb luck, I guess. But it brings me back to the question of being in control or being controlled by circumstances beyond our control. It's a reality that farmers around the world know and live with each day.

There is no rain and the crops die; there is too much rain and the cows die. Spring lambing is successful as the ewes spread out across green pastures; the cougar is successful finding plenty of young lamb meat for her cubs and hiding it well so she can't be tracked. Wood rots with age and buildings need to be rebuilt. Animals lean on fencing and fencing needs to be replaced. Tractors break down in the middle of harvest. Irrigation pipes spring leaks and blow apart when you are farthest from the pump "off" switch.

It is all a part of the Second Law of Thermodynamics I learned about in 9th grade. In layman's terms, the law basically states that "everything moves towards chaos". The idea being that it takes more energy to keep things organized than it does to allow things to be disorganized. Given half a chance most things on this earth will settle at a level of least resistance. It is only when we humans try to organize nature to fit our needs that control even becomes an issue. As in a farm. And, once you understand that, then it doesn't seem so bad.

It's like our farmer friends down the road told us. The weekends and the weekdays are all the same to them. The animals still need to be fed morning and night no matter the day. The hay needs to be harvested when it is ripe and there is no rain in the forecast for at least 3-5 days. There are other laws at work on a farm, like Murphy's Law, and you just need to have extra parts around all the time.

But, on the other hand, you know the smell of fresh mown hay. Can rub the rich, brown soil of a tilled field between your fingers. Disappear in a garden of corn or, better yet, sunflowers. Hear the cry of a hawk circling high above. Watch lambs unexpectedly leap in play as they run across a field, "Catch me, catch me, weeee, catch me!"

Now, the "running a-muck" and "running hog-wild" aren't nearly as hard to figure out. With mud to my arm pits at this time of year, and half of it from the sheep and the other half from the horses, no wonder there are mud rooms off the house where all the stinky boots remain. "Hog-wild", well that would be Craig's description of chasing down his 450 pound hog at midnight, first from his garden and then from the middle of the highway where Craig was more concerned about the damage the hog might do to a car than the other way around. The hog ended up in the freezer within the week.

Get's one to thinking: why didn't I drop more rock last summer so I wouldn't have to deal with this winter's mud? And, how did the hog get out anyway? All good questions. All about running a farm. Or not.

Photo: Sheep are our largest "crop" and I have lots of sheep pictures so here is another. Moms and babies standing on dry dirt, which in winter turns into sticky, deep mud for everything that isn't under cover. Yuck!

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2008 Scottie Jones
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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Christmas dinner

With two Heritage Bronze turkey toms and a hen reaching maturity this fall, it didn't take much thought deciding what we would eat for Christmas dinner. Instead of just strutting around and showing off, the toms had started fighting for dominance, and spring was still months away. The two would grab at each other's necks and pull hard on the skin and feathers at the base, screaming as they turned in circles, not letting go until I came running up yelling and waving my arms. And, that was only when I caught them. It reminded me of school girls pulling hair.

I wasn't ready by Thanksgiving to give a thumbs-down to one of the toms and bought a turkey from the market. Silly, really. But, of our animals raised for food, these birds have a way of winning my heart. They follow us around like dogs and are extremely curious, running up to see what we are doing, gobbling in approval, coming almost near enough to run a hand down the irridecent feathers on their backs. Their close sense of space is even a little alarming for visitors who aren't used to large birds flocking around in a noisy group. One day, I found the Fedex man frozen in the middle of the lawn, package in hand, surrounded by turkeys. Not exactly like Hitchcock's The Birds, but close.

They are also a noisy bunch, although Cisco has taken to exacerbating the level. I have found them face to face, the turkeys gobble and Cisco responds with barking. Back and forth they go. It isn't really a stand-off, more a cacaphony on the farm. We all seem to speak to them in response to their "Gobble, gobble, gobble." I have heard Allen and Mike, even myself, call back, "Oh, turkeys!" They turn their beady eyes in response,fluff up some more. "Gobble, gobble, gobble!" These are the reasons it made it hard to catch up one of the toms for eating. I mean, who eats funny animals?

I had already decided to hand off the killing and dressing to a Mexican woman in our community because she had grown up wringing chicken's necks for dinner. I didn't want to be so close to my turkey's end of life. I'm not that true a farmer. And then, the saddest part: the smaller of the toms just let me pick him up. No struggling, no flapping of feathers, no striking out with his talons. He looked nervously at me as if to say, "What are you doing and why are you sticking me head first into this feed sack?" I bound his legs with some baling twine, but it really wasn't necessary.

Arriving at Marguerite's house, I asked her where I should put my catch. "On the porch. Just leave him there." I had brought my largest canning pot because we determined her stew pots for chickens wouldn't do. I plopped it down beside the tom with a clatter. And, that was it. A large brown bird, lying still on the wood planks, the rain whispering down on the metal roof, the kitchen bright in the gloomy day.

I hesitated on the steps down to my car. Would Marguerite be able to save me the tail feathers so I could make a feather duster? She would try. Four hours later I had a call to come pick up my bird. The strong legs stuck up straight out of the pot. I couldn't get them to bend. There was a smell I wasn't used to and I still don't know what it was, but it almost put me off cooking the bird. I have noticed particularly pungent smells from some of our hand-slaughtered animals. Most others don't notice it but once it gets in your nostrils, it is hard to ignore and makes for an unhappy association.

I smelled that turkey every time I opened the refrigerator and all the while he baked in the oven. The smell was on my hands and seemingly in my pours, yet the meat was tasty and rich. Hard to explain since taste and smell are often so closely linked. Thankfully, he was a wonderful bird for our Christmas dinner, although the straight legs turned out to be a bit of a problem with my small oven!

I have said several silent prayers of thanksgiving to our turkey. Thank you for living. Thank you for entertaining us. Thank you for eating the garden grubs, for fertilizing the yard, for maintaining a sense of humor and curiousity when the dog faced off with you. Thank you for feeding us for many days. Thank you for my feather duster. You have provided amply for us. Thank you.

Photo: Chickens and turkeys free-ranging near a creek on our property. Cisco, the dog, is just our of the picture. A minute earlier he had had a barking-gobbling contest with the turkeys.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright 2007 Scottie Jones
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