Identifying with the Work

Identifying with the Work

Figuring Things Out
Moving Past the Calamities

by Lynn R. Miller of Fremont Canyon, OR

Yesterday I was walking late at night when it was blackest and I didn’t see the obstruction. I tripped, falling face forward into the gravel. I hit hard. Didn’t see the ground coming. Nearly knocked myself out. Falling is something old people like me come to dread. There is evidence that when we break things at this advanced age it’s hard to heal. Maybe impossible. One full day later, I ache all over, knees, shoulder, and face most particularly. But nothing seems broken, no bones at least. Yet something is definitely jarred, inside my mind. I’m feeling one of those wakeup calls people speak of. ‘Wakeup old man, take better care where you step.’ And more than that, ‘take better care what you do, of what you presume.’

And how does one take care of his or her own presumptions? Perhaps it is by allowing ample slow deliberate moments when we take measure. We take receipt of these farming lives, the events and the manners of working, as they happen and carry us. In those rare moments when we sit quiet and look back over the recent working past, it’s an opening when we might take measure.

Identifying with the Work
Kristi’s Black Sunflowers.

How’d we do? What were those pleasant surprises that flew past so fast that we could do little but smile for a second as we grabbed for that next needed tool. And what of those hard falls? It may be where punctuation holds the meaning. For the falls and great good fortune of a traditional farming life are dots, commas, exclamation points, periods, and question marks. Farming life on the whole, with the organizing declarative moments giving it all added meaning.

Right here, we Millers, we grow a few vegetables to eat. We breath pristine mountain air. We heat with wood. Our water is pure and sweet. We cook our own food. We tend livestock every single day of the year. It is all right livelihood.

Our vistas from anywhere on the ranch are invigorating. We use our Belgian work horses and we use very old two-cylinder JD tractors. We no longer have the farm help we have enjoyed for decades. It’s just us now. That slows things down. But we still get our farming done by physical labor and traditional methods, just less of it. We do our farming within our means. We have very little money, the choices we make most often guarantee that little is enough. If something breaks down, we fix it ourselves or trade labor with friends who do it for us. We do not identify with economy or economics. We identify with our work. Which means we see ourselves in what we’ve done, built, experienced, from the first shovel full to the ends of its time. We are traditional farmers with a persuasion of our own choosing.

We raise peafowl and allow them to free range over our homestead. We raise chickens. Our horse herd has dwindled to three teams. Our small herd of Red Angus cattle are gentle and mostly cooperative. We grow grass-legume mix hay along with grains. We use irrigation equipment that is 60 years old. We dream of growing more and various crops. Our gratitudes for what we are able to grow warm us. We cannot imagine being anywhere else, or living in any other way. We dream of growing older right here.

We are working out our differences with pasture eating, migrating, elk and deer herds. My wife is thrilled by our resident hawks and eagles but still stares them down long distance, warning them to stay clear of the chicken house. Coyotes, cougar and wild rabbits sneak around our perimeter. We share the farmstead with countless wild birds of many types and kinds. We plead guilty to encouraging most of those birds, by offering places to nest, by planting for them, and by giving them best audience.

Necessity Could Use a Laugh

I have this notion that the best way to ward off the elk herds from the crop land is to replicate the signals that trigger danger for them. So I want to build this battery powered robot that will, after dark and in random sequencing, smoke a cigarette every so often, crush a beer can and fling it into the brush, turn a small flashlight on and off under a thin fabric, make gas passing noises, release the smells of cheetos and bologna sandwiches into the night air, have a cell phone ring followed by a short burst of whispers, make the sounds of cartridges being chambered, and most important of all, replicate the sound of a grown man cursing under his breath when he gets skin caught in his zipper. I’m gonna call it ‘ElkAway,’ patent it and sell it to farmers with elk and deer problems, and to women’s hunting clubs for after-meeting entertainment. LRM

We pretty much keep to ourselves but nearby we do have two families of friends and neighbors who raise beef cattle, pigs, milk cows, and keep chickens. They also have work horses. We share work and we enjoy their company, and should do it more often.

We have had a productive year, by the standards of old farmers. That means I’m not measuring our success by yield, or profits. I am measuring by the number of projects we’ve been able to address and, in some cases, complete. Having the presence of mind to ‘see’ something you want and/ or need to do, that’s some kind of success. Having the strength and means then to go ahead with that project, that’s mighty big success.

We began the farm year, those many months ago, working up 25 acres of ground and planting it in two lands, one of forage wheat with grass and alfalfa, the next in Triticale. Though the time going forward seems to race at us, remembering back over the farming year I enjoy sensing it was a very long time ago when I planted those fields. Months forward seem to go so fast. Months, back before, stretch clear through each noon and on to the first sunrises.

Remembering what we planted last season reminds me that we need to solidify our plans for the coming one. That means we need to find sources for the crops we have decided we want to plant. We have two irrigated 30 and 40 acre fields that we farm in five to seven acre lands. After a first year of oats, wheat or barley, we have liked to follow with a grain nurse crop for that new ground, ground which hasn’t been farmed in many years. To grow under those sheltering grains, we usually plant grass legume mixes. We are keen to try one land that will include sanfoin, a cousin of alfalfa. It is a perrennial crop, which once established, develops a strong root system that withstands intense grazing from the likes of elk and deer. We also want to separate a couple of the lands by long, four-row, plantings of field varieties of sunflowers. We do not expect them to survive long as they will attract ungulates and birds, but we suspect there will be real advantages going forward. (Something we may choose to talk about more as we see what comes of the planting.) We have one seven acre land that has had oats for two years and we want to plant that into buckwheat, which we will mow at flower and disc in for soil benefit. But to do this will require we get the seed, and so far all three of these things, sanfoin, sunflowers and buckwheat, are somewhat difficult to secure at field quantity prices. Makes me anxious, because the time is fast approaching … there it is, that business of time forward fast, time back slow. And now, there are new challenges to the schedule of urgencies.

Identifying with the Work
One of my shop benches.

Each round of work, or project, requires that we prepare, fix and service our old equipment. We added a new team of Belgians this year which meant we needed to get a set of harness properly fit for work. (See article next issue on adjusting hames.) And when I knew I would be plowing I removed a plow share that had lost its suction and took it to my blacksmith shop. Heating the point in the forge, I then hammered the point and underside to create the right amount of curvature on the bottom. (This concavity is what gives the suction which holds the plow in the ground.) I used my old anvil horn for shape support.

Returning to the plow I noticed a crack in the cast iron support for the trail wheel. I made the judgement that it would be ok for that season but know I will likely have to get Ed to help me braze-weld it later in the summer when things slow down enough to do odd jobs.

Ha! That’s a perennial joke: we’re always saying ‘we’ll wait till winter when we have time to work on repairs’ and then turns out there’s never enough time, now it’s ‘we’ll wait till summer when we have time to get to it.’ I’m just beginning to understand that the trick is to never put it off, find time now and fix it right – before it gets worse.

We have a ‘borrowed’ JD gang disc we pull in tandem with three sections of Pioneer spring tooth harrow. We pull this with our 1947 JD Model R. That disc harrow needs frequent attention and this year I know I have to replace one of the carrier wheels and five of the disc blades. Hopefully my friend Dan Miller, the tractor man, will have some in his yard of parted-out implements. I also need to find some cover chains for my Van Brundt team drill. All that will take time. But it is a joy to have these targeted tasks in mind as they will add to the best forward motions for next work.

One of those target projects, something we’ve been trying to find time for for a long while, we finally accomplished. This summer we built ourselves a new woodshed. Three sided, eight foot deep seven foot tall, and twenty-four feet long. We put dry Juniper posts in the ground and built a frame on those to receive a shedroof rafter-assembly and tin. Didn’t cost much. And of course there are those situations that result in taking one step forward and two steps back. Weather has a way of dishing up such moments, and in large measure.

This winter we had a weather forecast warning us of heavy winds. We are used to this as our ranch lays in a trough or wide canyon on a windward line from the Cascades Mountains on east to the Ochocos. I remember we Millers talked about what we might need to put away or fasten down, ahead of that coming wind. We thought we had it covered (situational pun there). Then the winds came.

At about 9:30 a.m. it started with some healthy gusts flushing out our slice of atmosphere. By 10 we could feel it was getting serious, walking to the chicken house I had to lean into it or it would push me over. Then it started to scream, yes, a screaming wind. And we heard things ripping apart. Our peafowl roost up high in the junipers and pines. Watching from the window Kristi saw one peacock thrown from the treetop by the wind, thrown and carried a long ways before it could land in a stumbling roll and find something to get behind. Outside pieces of roofing tin were flying about. It was obvious we needed to stay put in our hunkered-down house. (Originally built in 1917, our shack hugs the landscape by design, it was built to lay as low as possible under big winds.)

By 11 a.m. the constant noise of the wind was punctuated by bangs, pops, flapping metal sounds, and screeching. Then there was an even louder crashing sound. Three quarters of the new woodshed roof assembly, rafters and tin, had been ripped off and flung 150 feet distant up into the air over the yard fence and into a tall juniper above the corner of our little house. The flying force of that torn assembly broke the upper tree branches and fell down onto the corner of the building. I was dumb enough to go out and see what had happened then turned to watch as the back portion of my blacksmith shop roof peeled off. I had to hold myself with the picket fence in order to stand. Across the yard I watched an entire section of that picket fence pop free of posts by the incredible force of the wind. The air was clear but the force of the wind was such that it hurt my face just as if it were full of sand. Looking around I saw where the anchored, solid outhouse had been torn free of its foundation and laid down. And off to the east the entire top half of a Juniper has been ripped out by the wind and tossed into an apple tree. I decided I was a dummy and backed back into the house to wait it out. It blew without let up until noon.

Later we would discover, from weather read-outs, that this wind had sustained a force of 75 mph. That might not seem so bad to those of you who live in hurricane and tornado country, but we only see such winds here every dozen years or so.

Over the next few days I inventoried some of the wind damage. I found ten large trees blown over or torn apart, one tree took out the gate and corner of our corral, four of our large galvanized stock water tanks – some with a foot of water in them – were rolled over and lifted and flung as far as a quarter mile. Our front porch roof on the house lost a course of roofing. Stacked lumber was blown and scattered. But the most costly damage was to our irrigation system, our pipes were torn apart and flung, some wrapping around trees. It will take us a significant portion of our already jam-packed spring to repair all that damage. And I am certain that I will be finding additional damage.

Even more of a challenge than the actual work required is not to allow such things to discourage you to the point of inactivity. One way which works for me is to recall strings of best days working, days I want to think define me. So I chainsawed up the broken trees while thinking about turning beautiful soil and watching the birds follow for unearthed treasures. Or I would pull nails and screws to release sheets of tin from the blown rafter assembly while remembering best days mowing hay with the many outstanding teams I have owned. That had me remembering back to several foalings when I was fortunate enough to hold and hug newborn draft foals when they were still warm and wet from birthing. A sticky mess yes, but I know the long and lasting friendship and bonding rewards of those first moments. Having a mature horse, like our stallion Jiggs, want to stand with me and whisper in my ear, “Where have you been Pop? I’ve missed you. I didn’t like that new store bought feed this morning, can you bring me some of our own hay this evening? And maybe a mare or three?”

Identifying with the Work
Polly and Anna working with Lynn to back the load of hay.

So by now I have completely forgotten about the storm damage and walk out to feed 30 year old Annie, one of my oldest Belgian team members. I don’t see her, she must be behind the chicken shed. As I walk with an armload of hay I remember that blissful summer day, big load of loose hay and how Polly and Anna made my crazy job seem so easy. I had to back through a narrow lane and into a tight barn door, we did it. Couldn’t have done it by tractor. Then I step around the shed and see old Annie down. She had dug herself a hole trying to get up, struggled pretty much all night long. She was thoroughly exhausted and her back legs no longer worked.

I went to the house to get my rifle, realizing that this business of being identified with the work goes clear to the marrow. LRM