LittleField Notes: Fall 2010
Fireflies are daughters to the stars
And go in the countryside to catch the scent of hay
Which is the scent of God
Because it smells of work – Giovanni Cerri
We have had a most interesting summer here in the Northwest. The coldest since 1980. We suffered a very chilly and damp spring. Once summer arrived it seemed to be just more of the same: chilly and damp. The corn, when it finally emerged, grew two inches, turned yellow and refused to grow any further. Tomatoes just hunkered down and went into survival mode, desperate for sun and heat. Without much hope of vine ripening, Northwesterners found themselves looking up Southern recipes for fried green tomatoes. Without a hoophouse green tomatoes were about the best you could hope for this summer. Speaking of Southern cuisine, the collards have been very robust. They loved the cool weather; some of the individual leaves have eclipsed the oft-mentioned dinner plate comparison and are approaching the size of the dinner table itself! The mangels are equally enormous, which huge bulbous roots and large succulent tops. The French heirloom fodder carrots, blanch a collet vert, are doing famously well, all white and twisted and exotic looking. The horses love them.
One frustrating tale from this season is the fact that the deer have discovered us. For the five years we’ve been on the place the deer and I have had an understanding. I would stay out of their world and they would stay out of mine. They wandered into the upper hay field and kept up a trail down to the river but discouraged by the presence of our dogs, generally stayed away from the garden and cultivated field. This year they have acquired a taste for all kinds of goodies with a particular fondness for strawberries and Jacobs’s cattle dry beans. The deer have become fearless, impervious to barking dogs, and unperturbed by mad farmers running around the field in slippers shouting and shooting .22 shells over their heads. Far from surrendering, I have recently learned about stuffing nylon stockings with blood meal and hanging them from fruit trees and on the garden fence. We shall see.
We grew a couple of acres of spring wheat and hull-less oats this year. Both crops did very well. They held their own despite patches of quack grass and periods of rain that I was sure would result in lodging; but the grain stood tall until the end, only matting where the deer had bedded down. When a dry period arrived toward the end of August I hooked up Fred and Clark to the McCormick-Deering 7’ binder and cut and bound the grain. Two horses really aren’t enough on the 7’ binder. I would never ask two horses to cut ten acres in a day, but with our small fields and the ready willingness of Fred and Clark, we got through just fine. I have grown lots of small grains as cover crops but am new to growing grains for harvest. So I am working through the inevitable learning curve associated with any new endeavor. I will write up in detail an account of our trials and tribulations with the thresher and binder in a future column. Stay tuned. For now suffice it to say that it is wonderfully satisfying to fill the horses’ grain boxes and my family’s cereal bowls every morning with oats and wheat grown right here in our own back yard.
Of Hay and Old Timers
I enthusiastically mowed a field of mixed grasses and clovers in early June based on a sunshiny forecast. The sun was there, but the temperatures weren’t. After a few days in the low 60’s a persistent marine layer developed and hung on like grim death. I’d hitch up the fjords to the tedder and fluff the mown hay. I fluffed and fluffed and fluffed until that hay was practically worn out. Still it was no dryer than an old wrung out sponge. The final blow came when it rained for three solid days. Fortunately I never did windrow the hay; I just let it lay in the field to feed the worms. The subsequent growth was unhindered by the spoiled hay sheet composting on the surface.
This experience taught me a lot about the value of heat in haymaking. Just because the sun icon is showing on the 10-day forecast doesn’t guarantee good haying weather. Early in the season, especially here in our misty climate, the soil still retains so much moisture that any drying accomplished during the day is rapidly erased as night falls and the temperature reaches the dew point. The poor little grasses and clovers don’t stand a chance of drying down with an onslaught of moisture from the air above and the ground below.
While the rain was beating down on my lost hay I found myself listening once again to a wonderful old cassette tape of Thorvald Hjort recorded back in 1977. It’s a lively, first hand account of life in the early days of the “old Ranch down on the Stilliguamish River.” Thor was born in 1918 in the house I live in today. His father George and Mother Kristina moved here in 1916 with the first herd of Holstein cattle to come into this country. Thor tells stories of moonshiners and federals, salmon and wooden shoes, and pranks in the barn at chore time – all the while sipping on “green wine,” a homemade concoction that, he says, isn’t quite done. Not surprisingly, his stories become more jocund and jolly the more he drinks.
What caught my ear with this latest listen was when he told about their summer routine, how every year the family would hoe corn all through the month of June. Then on the Fourth of July everyone would go to Arlington to enjoy the parade and fireworks. The next day, July 5th, haying would commence. They would be hard at it through all of July and August in order to get the hay put up. Pictures show Thor and his brother Conrad leaning on pitchforks in front of freshly built haycocks. I don’t think they owned a hayloader, which, of course, meant an awful lot of hand-work. Guess when the weather finally straightened up around here enough for us to make some good hay? The 5th of July, of course. So, as Thor was so fond of saying, we “went to work” and stuffed the old barn full of lovely loose hay – made during the six weeks spanning July and the first half of August.
Money can’t buy local knowledge. Here I was trying desperately to get some of that good succulent young June grass made into hay and the weather just wouldn’t support it. The old timers knew this. They knew to wait, to be patient. The sun will eventually come out. Besides, there is plenty else to do in June. I found that by cultivating and hoeing regularly through June the weeds were sufficiently under control in the mangel/corn field so that I could give my full attention to the all-important job of haying.
It is critical in farming that we don’t stagnate – that we not be afraid to try a new variety, a new rotation or new tool. By the same token, we must also not try to reinvent the wheel. We do that in part by paying proper deference to local custom and tradition. The challenge in these times is finding local knowledge. Large local commodity growers are not necessarily going to have retained the knowledge that their grandfathers and great-grandfathers had. Theirs was a knowledge borne of the necessity of making a life on a patch of land carved out of the wilderness. Necessity dictated diversity, and the technology of the day dictated the scale. Turns out they were on to something – something big, something worth Remembering.
Thor is gone now, and even though I was never able to meet him face to face, I am most grateful that he has come into my life on a rough old recording to whisper out of the past the secrets of long ago.
Of Special Places
Yesterday while traveling along the southwestern shore of Camano Island my wife Liz and I passed a mailbox with balloons flying in the wind clearly announcing something of importance. A wedding? An open house? An auction? Nope. Just a farm. A wee little island orchard with delicious goodness for sale: apples and honey. With a few tidy little buildings tucked surreptitiously in amongst the many old varieties of apple trees, and with roses and grapes climbing the split rail fence, I knew right away that we had stumbled onto a special place. There are a few sacred little places tucked away in the back corners of the world that are worth seeing and knowing. These are the places where a certain kind of magic is happening; where all the elements of human ingenuity, hard work and aesthetic come together to form a physical manifestation of the best of human endeavor on the land. You know right away when you see one. They are places where care and love are evident in all things.
Being present at a place like this is not unlike stepping into a fine old cathedral where the sense of the sacred is palpable, and where abides a pervading sense of timelessness. Similar experiences are had in an old growth forest say, or in the high mountains. But what makes a farm or cathedral different is the fact that it is the work of human hands that inspires the awe. A farm accentuates the inherent beauty in nature and a cathedral accentuates the experience of the divine. It is this melding of the natural with the made where human beings are able to do their best work. Architectural and industrial ugliness is so pervasive these days (take a look at any convenience store or interstate hi-way interchange) that it is absolutely essential that we recognize and make every effort to create human loveliness in our own lives. Hidden beyond the strip malls and hi-ways, in the back corners of your town and mine there are people creating little havens of excellence.
Over the years I have cataloged in my mind a few of my favorite special places: A ranch in the high mountains of western Wyoming where the loose haystacks, irregular river bottom meadows and weathered log buildings make for an achingly beautiful scene. Canada geese in the meadows, chickens in the yard and a man with a team mowing native grass hay completes the scene. I remember one time sitting on the gravel road on the hill overlooking the place. I really didn’t have any business there. I was just traveling through and couldn’t resist stopping to take a long look. As I gazed across the valley I felt a rush of emotion at the rightness of the place; at the way it seemed to echo a time long gone when ranches like this one would have been commonplace instead of a rare exception to the New West of 5 acre “ranchettes.” You almost couldn’t imagine the valley without the ranch or the ranch without the valley.
EverGreen Farm comes to mind – also in Wyoming, where a young family grows absolutely beautiful produce at 6200 ft elevation. The tidy rows, numerous hoop houses, goat barn and composting pigpens make for a scene of deliberate and careful stewardship. The scale is correct. The balance of livestock to crops is proper and the care and attention to detail is obvious. To see their stand at the Jackson Hole Farmer’s Market is to witness a kind agricultural perfection. Their stand, with produce that seems to almost glow, is as busy as a beehive with grateful customers eager to take home a bit of the farm.
A couple of years ago we were standing in the farmstead of an old farm in the beautiful Skagit Valley. There among the poplars and nut and fruit trees by the house Liz, not usually the weepy type, burst out in tears; tears of gratitude, happiness and the joyful, sorrowful appreciation of what is beautiful, sacred and right in the world and the painful recognition of its fragility. Fragile in the sense that these places are always under threat, the victims of so-called progress and profit. Standing in the middle of that old treed farm house yard with the big white barn behind and fields beyond, you knew there was something special about this place. Not anything you could put your finger on, or articulate out loud- just the echo of something deep within. I suspect it must be the echo of 10,000 years of human work on the land.
At the SFJ auction last spring good friend and brother-in-law Tom Rardin and I were talking about farming and music and politics and everything in between and he said to me “I notice that no matter what we are talking about you are always bringing up aesthetics.” He’s right, I suppose. I’ve thought a lot about his observation since. Why is it important that we create beauty in the world? What is important about aesthetics, if anything? When I come across a place like the Camano Island orchard I am stunned by the goodness of it all. I think: now here is a man selling apples. He’s making a living at it and doing it lovingly and beautifully. He could just as easily have chosen to grow apples without beauty. He could have grown just one or two commercial varieties, used a mountain of chemicals, built an ugly house, had no flowers or grapes or split rail fence. The way of beauty feels right. Is right in a way that speed and greed never can be. I’m talking about matters of the heart and of the spirit. And how do you quantify or defend such ephemeral qualities? All we can do is go out in the world and create our own lives and our own farms and gardens and see if we can’t bring a little of our own magic to the process. A little heart and soul and aesthetic gluttony will go a long way toward healing a wounded planet and a dispirited humanity.