Having animals to tend again, chores to do, is a kind of rebirth for me; a second childhood, a return to yesteryear. Like a new blade of grass, or a fresh sprout poking up through the brown, winter-soaked leaves at the edge of a field, I am coming alive once more, feeling a sense of déjà vu, a usefulness and sense of value and accomplishment that was sorely lacking during all those years working at the prison. Living things are depending on me again for sustenance, understanding and compassion, patience, maintenance and punctuality.
Strange things happen when new equipment arrives on a farm. Feuding neighbors call a truce to hostilities. Bedridden old men suddenly find the strength to put on pants and comb their hair. Even cows gather along the fence to watch the arrival of a new piece of scenery. By new, I should specify “new to the farm.” In fact, rusty pieces of farm equipment draw the biggest crowds. Sometimes the crowds grow unruly as onlookers jockey for position to ogle the equipment, declare make and model, enumerate defects, and place odds on the piece ever running again. Illegal betting may occur, which is why a police escort of the equipment onto the premises is advisable. If a spontaneous parade forms behind the escort, no prouder moment occurs in a farmer’s life.
It should be noted that, much to Bunyan’s amusement, Poka had a vocabulary that would make a sailor cringe, a highly peculiar asset in a day and age when women rarely swore. To Bunyan’s way of thinking, to hear her let loose was well worth the sacrifice of a few stalks of rhubarb, so every spring Queenie and King “accidentally” trampled Poka’s rhubarb patch. Beholding the ruins from her kitchen window, Poka would come tearing out of her house, her apron flapping in the wind. Wrinkled jowls jiggling with intensity, black eyes flashing with vehemence, she would lob a volley of cuss words toward Bunyan and his white horses.
Sure, the hands thought they knew all about broke horses, and green-broke horses, and those that had never felt a rope or bit. Being broke was mostly a deal the horse made with you, some easier than others. If you quit riding them, they got harder to ride till eventually you were back where you started, having to catch and subdue an animal who was far from curious, intent on just running away. Nobody could blame them, and there were only a few tricks — what else but patience to calm their fears, touches and treats to reward their curiosity, and for their ears a nonsense lullaby.
I don’t think anyone was prepared for what he said because he obviously liked the wine very much. He shocked us by saying he had to recommend other wines to his customers because he could get California wine cheaper. He said that he felt he owed it to his customers to sell them wine that made their money go the farthest. He is indeed doing just that. By using the cheapest price as his primary guideline, the shop owner is sending his customer’s money out of the state and all the way to the coast, instead of sending the customer’s money to a nearby community. In addition, he is also sending trucks the farthest too – over a thousand miles to the coast to pick up the wine when a trip to the nearby vineyard would have netted him as good or better vine.
People ask this question in many shifting forms; “What made you choose the life of an old-fashioned horse-farmer?” Sometimes I answer it, sometimes I don’t even make an effort. But now I’m intensely interested in understanding how we must crack the new armors of the young if we are to “get through to” candidate novices, those people who think they want to do what we do. And we must get through to them if we are to complete the hand-off, the passing of the proverbial baton. So that means we have to honor all these questions and make good attempt to honestly and completely answer them.
John and Heather Erskine of Monroe, Washington, have been synonymous with the best of Shire horses since before I can remember. They have helped wagon loads of people with their horses and horse adventures. Up at last year’s Sandpoint, Idaho, show John shared a photo album with me that set me right down and I twisted his arm to let me share some of his outstanding pictures with you.
My apple orchard has only recently begun to bear fruit, but I have learned many things by the “school of hard knocks” which I wish I had known before. Perhaps these remarks may save some time and trouble for others thinking of setting out apple trees in a cold and demanding climate. Northwestern Maine, where I live, appears on the climate map as Zone 3, and area frost pockets even get down to -45 degrees F.
At Small Farmer’s Journal we are frequently asked what the original colors were for various and sundry makes of horse drawn farm equipment. Some folks who restore these implements are purists and wish to correctly duplicate the coloration. While the colors for something like McCormick-Deering mowers were constantly changing and quite complex, we for years felt comfortable in the certainty that John Deere was always their own unchanging yellow and green. We were surprised then to discover from original sales brochures that they frequently used a third color, red-orange, on their tools. Here are two examples which we hope reproduce sufficiently well for you to get good information.
After living in Ohio for twelve years and being very home-sick, I was ready to get home, spend time with my family and friends, and get back to the farm. The question arose, can one really come back home? When I lived in Ohio and asked myself that question the answer was adamantly, yes! Now that I was here… I wasn’t so sure.
We had been looking for a few years before we found our land. We had been hoping to find an old homestead, with an old house and barn, but all the ones we looked at were either in a bad location, or would’ve needed so much repairs that it was too much for us. So finally, our realtor-friend said to us, “Did you ever think of just buying land and building new?” We had thought we couldn’t afford to do that, but realized that building a very simple, new house would cost about the same as restoring an old one. So he showed 10 acres for sale that he knew of. (Actually, it’s in two adjoining five acre parcels, but we wound up buying both of them.) The land was for sale because it was too steep & hilly to farm “conventionally,” the big equipment was at risk of rolling on the slopes.
Eating invasive vegetation that compete for the scant water supply and inhibit the growth of grass, goats are a biblical-age solution to a modern-day scourge. To restore the land, 1,300 goats mimic the buffalo herds that once grazed the region – breaking the soil’s crust, stomping decadent grasses, knocking over dead trees, fertilizing with their droppings and embedding seeds. And, all the while, the goats voraciously defoliate and ultimately kill the water-guzzling Tamarisk.
The efficiency of horse labor depends to large extent upon the serviceability of the harness. To get the best possible service from both the horse and its harness is an important factor in the profitable operation of a farm. A broken trace or hame during the rush season may cause an expensive loss of time, besides much inconvenience. Improper adjustment of collars and other parts may soon put the horse out of service with sore neck and shoulders. A rotted and weakened line or hame string may result in a serious accident and injury to both horse and driver. Also, because clean well-kept harness adds a great deal to the attractiveness of a team, the farmer should take pride in keeping his outfit in first class condition.
I, like many before me, had just entered that gray foggy area where those more timid, or could it be more experienced, fear to tread. I had a thoroughly terrified horse who had no interest in harness or cart, and many knowledgeable horse people told me I had ruined her forever. To find my way out I would have to reach deep inside both myself and my mare, and in the process discover that no matter what people said, it could be done.
In the last 20 or so years we’ve experienced a “Go Green” doctrine throughout our society. Everyone is looking to reduce carbon footprints, recycle and make a better tomorrow. The Somerset County Jail in Madison, Maine is on board with this doctrine. Upon opening of the facility back in 2008-09 we started a three acre garden plot with two goals: provide work for community trustee inmates, and to augment the jails food budget with fresh salad vegetables and potatoes. A reserve corrections officer was hired who had extensive experience with farming in Maine. In 2009, the garden resulted in a small savings to the jails food service budget of $400. This has increased steadily to around $2500 in salad vegetables and $3000 of potatoes from a five acre garden.
It was at this moment that I became aware of a certain menace behind me and an instant later felt something engage my back. There was a violent flapping of wings and the stabbing pain of talons. It was Rex, the barred rock patriarch of the flock. I twisted and stood up quicker than I thought possible, throwing him off in one motion. Naturally I was alarmed, and not at all pleased. I chased him around the pen and snatched him up. Staring into his beady little rooster eyes, I spoke to him words that he would clearly understand. I told him that he may be a grande and beautiful rooster, full of might, but that I am a grander and far more powerful rooster, full of greater might even than he. My message delivered, I gently set him down. He skulked off to a far corner of the coop to think things over.
It’s all too easy living in America, where the supermarché was invented, to forget that food actually comes from farms, that there is a direct link from the soil to table. Jesus’ last earthly act was to break bread and share wine with his friends. Even at that famous last supper the bread and wine did not appear miraculously. The bread and wine were indeed the “work of human hands.”
On many farms where butter is made for home use it is desirable to put away some of the surplus summer butter to use during the late fall and winter when production is sometimes not sufficient for the family needs. Many farmers, after using special care in making summer butter that they think will keep well, have put it away only to find a few months later that it has become strong and rancid. This experience is not confined to farm butter. The city dealer in creamery butter has had the same experience even when he stored it in a good cold-storage warehouse. Experimental work in the United States Department of Agriculture a number of years ago showed that the sourness of the cream greatly influenced the keeping quality of the butter and that butter of the best keeping quality was made from perfectly sweet Pasteurized cream.
After the log skid everyone broke for lunch and a rest from the heat. It was a beautiful sunny day with the bluest of skies with big fluffy white clouds. They couldn’t have asked for a better day! Pete and I ate lunch at the Cornplanter Pavilion and watched as the pulling horses entered the arena for the pulling contest that afternoon. We recognized several names from our area that had made the trip to compete. We then wandered through the rabbit and poultry barns and several other animal barns. We checked out the Domestic and Agriculture buildings, too. It’s nice to go to a fair that puts more emphasis on agriculture than carnival! Getting back to the “Bull Pen” (the ox barn) we found everyone getting ready for the ox pull.
“Let me tell you about where I grew up, not so far from here…” and she did. She started weaving images through our brains like the artwork on her walls. She told us of the farm we were on, and how she used to sell her art at the stand, how her husband had worked for years pruning and picking without a single farming bone in his body. ‘Just for the love of apples.’ She told us of the pies she had baked, the farm stand they had built and grown in. She went round and round – a traveler in time sitting right before us. “And now there’s no one to take care of this old place.” She looked down at her hands. “Of course you can pick the apples – go pick them to your heart’s content.”
Having made the conscious choice to employ work horses in harness as motive power for my farming I recognized that I would have to gather up the information I lacked. How to fit a harness – How to recognize a usable piece of older farm equipment – How to hook horses to those implements – What to feed my horses and when – How to tell if the boxings in a disc were bad – How to get my plow to run right – How deep to plant Oat seed in dry soil – Why certain names for horses were a mistake??? on and on and on… I would have to gather up this information because my research indicated that there was no public temple for this information, no place where relic technologies and skills were chronicled and cataloged. That was odd? So much beauty, value, and frailty in all the old knowledge – shouldn’t it be preserved, saved, stored?
We need to have longer memories than we do. The last two hundred years are not representative of the life of our species. They were built on a foundation that is not sustainable, and when it crumbles, our capacity for innovation may need to be replaced by our capacity for renovation. Old technologies that were designed with the limits of economics and planetary sustainability in mind will once again become valuable, and our lives will have to change drastically as a result.
Grain growers were quick to appreciate the many outstanding features of the John Deere No. 5 Combine – quick to see in it the answer to a demand for a light-draft, long-lived, grain-saving combine. All through the last combining season, they were enthusiastically asking friends, “Have you see the new John Deere No. 5?”
When I got out into the long grass the sun was not yet risen, but there were already many colors in the eastern sky, and I made haste to sharpen my scythe, so that I might get to the cutting before the dew should dry. Some say that it is best to wait till all the dew has risen, so as to get the grass quite dry from the very first. But, though it is an advantage to get the grass quite dry, yet it is not worth while to wait till the dew has risen. For, in the first place, you lose many hours of work (and those the coolest), and next — which is more important — you lose that great ease and thickness in cutting which comes of the dew. So I at once began to sharpen my scythe.
In the eastern part of the country rolling hills and wide valleys form the landscape. In this area the farms are a lot bigger than the average Norwegian farm of 25 acres. Grains and potatoes are mainly grown in this region. In the west mountains, lakes and fjords dominate the landscape. The farms are small and often situated on steep hills. Milk production is dominant in this area, with milking goats where the land is too steep for cows to graze. Until the end of the 50s the majority of the farms were powered with horses. Fifteen years later tractors had almost completely replaced the workhorse. Today most of the workhorses can be found on smaller farms and in the mountains.