Doing our work with as much grace as we can find
The chickens are finally in their clover pasture because weather has turned warmer, and they have finally feathered out. On Friday, I herded all the chickens in from their temporary yard by our garage, and Ian chained the little coop to the back of our tractor. The coop slid behind him on skids as he drove out to the pasture. Then we set up a fence for them and let them out into their new world. The chickens seem to be making up for lost time by eating lots of greens. Their yard has become a honeycomb of little paths through the clover, and near their coop, they have eaten all the leaves off the plants, leaving stiff stalks bare and pointing up at the sky. We will need to rotate their pasture much sooner than I expected.
The flock seems much more relaxed in the warmer weather. I feel relieved for them. On the first warm night this week, when their coop was still near our garage, a bunch of them bedded down in the grass, and something felt just right about that. Even so, I had to move them inside to protect them from predators, so I ended up picking up half the flock, one or two at a time, and setting them inside their coop. It was a little bit shocking. They are completely feathered out on top, but when I reached my hands around their undersides to lift them, my fingers sank very slightly into warm, soft skin. Apparently their bellies have not feathered out yet. It was not at all what I expected, and I felt surprised every time I picked up another chicken. The chickens felt surprised too. They squawked piteously, but then calmed down quickly when I set them down again. I admire how quickly chickens seem to recover from emotional upsets.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 02:54 PM CDT
The USDA is considering new regulations that could put small meat processors out of business and cripple the production of locally raised meat. The new rules would make the processors do expensive tests on every product they offer, and a well-respected meat processor in my area has said that many small processors will not be able to keep up with the cost and the work involved. If you would like more information, see http://www.landstewardshipproject.org/alerts/10/newsr_100422.htm
As someone who sells chicken, I am really worried about this. This is a version of the e-mail I sent to the USDA. If you share my concern would like to use some of my words in an e-mail of your own, you are welcome to do that. Comments need to be e-mailed to DraftValidationGuideComments@fsis.usda.gov by June 19. Here is my letter:
Dear Sir or Mdm.
I am very worried about the USDA’s drafts of new meat testing regulations for small processors. I am really that these new regulations could put small processors out of business. Without those small processors, small farmers would not be able to sell their meat to people at a time when folks are really excited about local food. The number of tiny farms has grown greatly in recent years, and those small-scale farmers are selling their products to a small but enthusiastic and quickly growing market.
I do not believe that these regulations will make the public any safer. Most people who get sick eating meat are not eating meat from small processors. These processors also do not face many of the conditions that make the larger processors more vulnerable to spreading foodborne illness.
Please make exceptions for small processors in your rules. People want a choice about the kind of meat they buy, and small business people (processors and farmers) deserve a chance to make a go of it. They don’t need any more obstacles in their way, and their work is not making the American people unsafe.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 10:51 PM CDT
While I was training to become Lamaze childbirth educator, I got the idea that spring was one of the most dangerous times to live on a farm. I read that babies who were born during certain times of the year in farm country are more likely to have birth defects because they were in a critical time of their prenatal development during the spring when the fields were being heavily sprayed. We moved to our farm in June of last year, and all year I’ve been remembering that study about the birth defects and wondering if I would be able to make it through my first spring living here.
I have a hard time with chemicals, even those that don’t bother most people. For example, half an hour after using sunblock, I feel so sick to my stomach that I have to lie down. I have given up on the stuff and am using long sleeves and hats instead. The chemicals they spray on crops are even worse. Last July, when I was in Iowa for a Quaker gathering, they were using planes to do some cropdusting nearby, and I was moderately sick for a week. For a couple of those days, I had to cancel most of my other plans and sleep. This problem embarrasses me somehow, and I want to explain that I was not always this way, and that I am not trying to be difficult or overdramatic. On a rational level, I know this explanation should not be necessary.
Given my problem, moving to a farm nestled in corn and soybean fields seemed like a bad idea. Before we moved, we did some research, and I read about studies that suggest agricultural chemicals may cause various kinds of cancer. I also read that these chemicals tend to become more concentrated inside homes, because they cannot break down the way they would outside. I vowed that I would clean our new house regularly and well, but of course I have not.
In the end, we decided to move to the farm because we could not imagine doing otherwise. On some level though, I have been worried that we would not be able to stay here. I thought that might become clear this spring.
So far, I’ve been aware only of one bout of spraying this spring. My stomach went queezy as I was caring for the chicks outside one morning, and I stepped away from the coop to look around. Down the road I saw a small group of trucks parked in the neighbor’s field. One had a tank on its back. I finished up my work and headed inside instead of tackling some of the other outside projects I had planned for the morning. I had not been inside long when a vehicle drove through the field to my tree line with its long red spray mechanisms outstretched behind it like low, enormous wings. It retreated and returned several times, its loud engine vibrating. Sometimes, throughout that day, I felt a little spacey and nauseated, but it was not a big deal.
The next day, my neighbor planted corn, and now I can see it coming up in beautiful light green rows. I’m happy to see it, but I’m also afraid because I do not know what kind of spraying will happen in that field during the next month or so. Still, it is already the middle of May, and I am doing fine, so I’m starting to believe that we will be able to keep living here.
Now a new fear is forming. I will worry that because we are staying, my children might get cancer when they are adults. I so much wish that growing food did not mean risking my health and fearing for the health of my children. It should not be that way.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 10:58 PM CDT
The wild plums on the south border of our property are blooming. I can see them from the window as a spray of white against dark branches that are not yet hidden by leaves. Everywhere I drive now, I see wild plums in bloom, and it feels like I’m discovering secrets. I try to make mental notes of where they are, as if I were planning to go back and harvest them later, but I’m sure I won’t. I want to know where they are because wild plums are one of the ways the land laughs, and I want to hear that laughter.
The day we first found our wild plums was one of the most beautiful days of my life. Last summer, I walked along the south border of our property for no good reason on a day when the sky was thick with heavy gray clouds. There were some yellow flowers along the south fence line, mixed into in a thin border of grass between soybean fields. In that strange light before the rain, the flowers were orange lanterns that glowed from within. I went to them, and when I looked at the shrubs beside them, I saw the golden plums hanging down.
My husband and son were gone for the afternoon, so I went running barefoot through the soybeans and across our clover to find my daughter. She came to see them and she lit up, as one does in the presence of something amazing. Then the rain came. We ran to the garage and sat there on an old ragged loveseat while the rain drummed on the metal roof and sent its wonderful odor wafting through the wide open door. Kittens, which had been born in a garage before we moved in, came to sit on our laps and rub against our legs. As we talked and joked, part of me stood aside, full of sober wonder at the loveliness of my daughter.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 10:57 PM CDT
Through my front window this week, I caught a glimpse of something large falling to the ground. I went over to the window to get a closer look, and I saw a hawk standing on top of a starling, which it had apparently just brought down to the ground. The hawk, which was only slightly larger than the bird it had captured, stared steadily at me from less than 10 feet away while the shimmering starling struggled to rise. Suddenly, the hawk lifted and flew across the street to the wood, while the starling flapped away in the other direction.
If that hawk can bring down a starling, it will certainly be after my chickens. Last year, we tied the fishing line over the chicken yard to keep away hawks, and we will probably need to do the same this year. In the meantime, the chicks are still safe in their brooder. Their bodies are still yellow fluff, but their wings are covered with white feathers now. The feathers look more like a fashion statement than an integral part of the chicken.
Because we are feeding them purely organic grain, we are not giving the chicks medicated feed as many people do. Many pastured poultry producers feed their chicks raw milk occasionally to help them stay healthy, so in our refrigerator, we have a two-quart mason jar full of creamy raw milk from grass-fed cows. I will mix some of it into the chicken feed tonight. It looks like a real treat.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 08:48 PM CDT
The chicks have arrived!
We spent the last week cleaning and renovating their coop and then getting it all ready for them. On Wednesday, the day they were to leave the hatchery in Iowa, we turned the heat lamps on in their coop, and it waited for them, bright and warm-looking.
At around noon on Thursday, the post office called to say the chicks had arrived, and we frantically rushed around the chicken coop trying to seal up drafts. Then, we drove to the post office, and the minute I walked through the door, I could hear peeping. We picked up our big cardboard box full of peeping chicks, and we set it across the laps of my son and mother-in-law for the ride home. They peered through the holes of the box at the yellow fluffy shapes inside.
Back at home, all three of us sat down in the clean woodchips of the chicken coop, and as we lifted each fuzzy yellow chick out of the box, we quickly dipped its beak into water, which apparently entices them to drink. It worked well, as they were soon gathering around the little watering bowls, sipping the water, then lifting their beaks up to the sky to swallow. They are little yellow balls of fluff that fit perfectly in my palm and seem rather indifferent about being picked up. These chicks are lively, and I’m surprised at how quickly they can dark about on their little yellow feet, but they also spend a lot of time sleeping. While we watch them, one of them almost fell asleep while standing up!
During the next few days, we will be especially careful to keep them warm, adjusting the heat lamps down to provide lots of heat during the cool nights.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 08:32 PM CDT
I had a plan for what my husband and I should do on the first day we visited our new farm. We were going to waltz there, just like the couple did in the last scene of a movie called Sweet Land. I watched that movie before I knew it was possible that I'd have land of my own, and after watching those two people dancing in the wide open space of the movie screen, I sat in a dark theater sobbing as the credits rolled and everyone else got up to leave. Then I broke down crying again in my kitchen in Minneapolis because I felt so wildly homesick for a farm that had never been mine. If I could dance in my own fields, with my husband, I felt like my longing would be put to rest.
My husband knew this was important to me, so he agreed to waltz around in the fields on our first visit to our farm after we bought it. We ambled north of the house, he put his arm around my waist, and we held hands like we were waiting for music to start. From our first step to our last, we were painfully awkward. Our soil is full of clay, and so the ridges of earth between the rows of corn were solid and treacherous. We kept tripping and looking around, trying not to crash through the surprisingly solid walls of last-year’s corn stalks. It was not romantic, and after my husband had checked a couple of times to be sure that I had indeed gotten enough of the long-awaited dancing, we stopped.
With that task out of the way, my husband immediately bent down and started squishing the soil between his fingers, trying to make a snake out of it the way my kids make snakes out of play dough. I bent down to join him and found it was kind of fun. Our soil is so full of clay you could sculpt almost anything you liked from it, and it would hold the shape. I was fascinated, and we crouched there talking about the dirt. Eventually, we stood up again, and just for the heck of it, we started skipping north, each in our own little road hemmed by tough, light brown corn stalks. As I bounced up and down past corn stalks, I looked over at my husband skipping, and I couldn’t help smiling.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 08:50 PM CDT
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We named our farm after my great-aunt Anne, who lived in northwestern part of the state where it is so flat you can see the curve of the earth. At least, my grandfather could see it. He looked at the fields the way sailors used to look at the sea, and he remembered that sailors spied only the top of a far-away ship because the curve of the earth blocked their view of the rest of the vessel. Instead of seeing a ship, my grandpa saw a church steeple far away across flat fields. As he drew closer to a church, he saw more and more of the church building as the curve of the earth stopped obstructing his view and receded again into the realm of the unseen.
The silent curve of the earth did not haunt the home of my great aunt. Her old white farmhouse was surrounded trees, and filled with the activity of farm animals, work and children. My grandma was born and grew up in that house, and whenever she came back for a visit, she felt like she was going home. Grandma died when my mother was 11, and after that, I think Auntie Annie’s house became my mother’s home too, even though she could only visit during the summers.
I grew up listening to the stories of that farm, and those stories were told with such love that I grew up believing Auntie Annie’s life was a model of what life should be like. Auntie Anne was tough, and full of common sense, and ready to laugh. I remember that she had a twinkle in her eye even as a very old woman, which suggested to me she might be up to some mischief. I’ve been told that people could identify her car when they could barely see it across the flat fields because she always drove so fast down the gravel roads that she kicked up huge clouds of dust.
Auntie Anne was also wildly competent. She raised seven children on a farm that grew much of what the family ate, and when her husband died suddenly, she and her fairly young children kept farming. Apparently some relative speculated she would need to move to town after being widowed, and that lit a fire under her. She proved that relative wrong.
I will never be like Auntie Anne. She earned her competence and common sense by working tremendously hard all her life. My life has been easier in many ways, and full of more options. The culture around us has changed, too. The land where she lived, which used to be full of children, churches, gardens and chicken coops, has been emptying out for almost half a century. The houses go empty then disappear, marked only by the clusters of trees that once sheltered them from wind. Then, the trees turn into piles of brush, and the piles disappear into fields of row crops that go on like inland seas. Shops close, and schools close, and some people keep on farming.
On the day we changed our name, I think I felt the presence of Auntie Anne. It blew in like a wind through the east window. At the time, I was feeling unsure about this name because I was afraid that as new (less competent) farmers, we might sometimes be an embarrassment to her memory. My mom said not to worry about that because she couldn’t imagine Auntie Anne being embarrassed about anything at all. I am not really worried about it either. I feel easy with naming our farm after Auntie Anne not because I am competent but because I love her, and just like she did, I love a little piece of ground.
Posted by Elizabeth
@ 09:38 PM CDT