First we had hunting and gathering. Then we had farming. Those two periods of human history lasted quite a long time. Then we had agriculture, morphing some would say by necessity into the highly extractive agribusiness model of soil mining – simplify by calling it industrial agriculture. In the wider scope of human history, industrial agriculture has been a blip.
Westmoreland County, in Southwestern Pennsylvania in the late 50’s and early 60’s was largely an industrial area. But backed up in the hills and valleys and eastward towards the Appalachian Mountains were some of the prettiest little farms to be found anywhere. Two hundred year-old farmsteads were testimony to the hard work and persistence of those who had been before. The tractor had largely replaced the draft horse throughout much of North America by that time. But tucked back into those hollows and on those steep hillsides could be found a surprising number of “big horses.”
The most essential knowledge to the successful operation of a Harvester is to recognize the proper time to start harvesting. Most grain growers become anxious to start harvesting when the grain begins to show a golden hue. Grain should never be threshed until thoroughly ripe and the straw gets brittle.
The Burgess dairy farm and cheese factory are sustainable operations, meaning that nearly every by-product is re-used or recycled. For example, the usually-discarded whey goes to feed their own pigs, producing an exceptionally tasty, lean pork. Whey is the liquid portion of milk that develops after the milk protein has coagulated, and contains water, milk sugar, albuminous proteins, and minerals.
To be an effective trimmer of horse hooves one needs to spend a lot of time simply looking at horses. It is important not only to study their feet but to understand how the grounding action of the feet is affecting everything in the mass of body above. The adept trimmer needs to observe the horses from all angles both when they are standing at rest and while in they are in movement.
Dig sweet potatoes carefully as their skin is thin and they will bruise easily. It is best to wear gloves when handling them. Do not leave the roots exposed to direct sunlight with temperatures above 90 degrees F. for over 30 minutes as they will sun-scald and be more susceptible to storage rots.
Here on these twenty five acres a steady transformation is happening, a confluence of fortuitous events, opportunities, and passion that brings me to the righteous work of land stewardship. Dad’s father was the classic outdoorsman. He bought this land in the 1940s. It was mainly a sanctuary for wildlife, and for family too. It’s fair to say habitat conservation is the one thing he began that I have the sacred honor of continuing, albeit in a slightly different form: sustainable food production.
Java temperaments, laying abilities, and meat quality have been a tremendous help for us in interesting potential new breeders. These birds are very calm and easily handled while still being a very active breed. They are excellent foragers and do well in the barnyard. Hens lay large rich brown eggs and many are good mothers. Young cockerels make excellent table fare. The size of Javas also makes them a very desirable bird. Roosters average about nine and a half pounds while hens tend to be about six and a half.
One of the most fondly remembered horses was “Old Dot.” She came to the ranch as a young mare and worked there until she was about 30 years old. Dot was probably the most versatile horse the Thomas family ever had. They used her for riding, packing, haying, pulling any kind of wagon or equipment, and for “snaking” logs and poles out of the woods when they were cutting firewood or corral posts and poles.
Some things I have learned about working with oxen as with any other living thing is to treat them with some respect. Especially hump-backed cattle which I prefer. Be firm and gentle, but consistent, realizing you could be seriously injured if they chose. Be patient while teaching them what you want them to do, and then insisting every time that they do what you want them to do every time.
Corn picking started the first week in October if growing conditions were good. Farmers often harnessed their teams in the dark to be in the field early and bring in a 50-bushel load before dinner and another in the afternoon. Nobody picked on Sunday. Truman Nelson said even the horses knew it was Sunday. They would stand in the far corner of the pasture and stare if you had a bridle in your hand.
They advertise “rain or shine” for the Rock Creek Plowing Exhibition and this year they were put to the test. I’m happy to tell you that the horses and teamsters and spectators passed the test with flying, if soaked, colors. But I had forgotten that folks west of the Cascade Mountain range are accustomed to this sort of weather. I think it was my friend Ron VanGrunsven who, when I asked him why he was there, remarked “It’s too wet to do anything else.”
When I saw an ad in the paper for a sheepherding clinic being held less than a stone’s throw from my front door, I could not resist. Such an event, pre-dog, would definitely have interested me, falling in the category of human-animal cooperative endeavors, as it were. I wasn’t sure if I should dare bring my mangy pound puppy, though. So I signed on as a spectator and arrived a minute before showtime, curious to see, and maintaining the option to bring my dog later.
The family meal has undergone a steady devaluation from its one time role at the center of human life, when it was the daily enactment of shared necessity and ritualized cooperation. Today, as never before in history, the meals of children are likely to have been cooked by strangers, to consist of highly processed foods that are produced far away, and are likely to be taken casually, greedily, in haste, and, all too often, alone.