LittleField Notes: Fall 2014
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
“If I didn’t continue to prove myself a fool, I would think myself a philosopher.” – Henry M. Plummer
Such a glorious fall I can’t remember, with week after week of warm pleasant days filled with abundant sunshine. In keeping with my long running, coldblooded habit I don long underwear for cool foggy early morning chores. By 10:00 I’m forced into the house to shed layers as the sun burns the fog out of the river valley and the temperature climbs into the low 70’s. Relatively warm nights have kept the tomatoes producing beyond expectation. The late blight is, mercifully later than usual. So we keep on eating tomatoes. And really, who gets tired of fresh tomatoes? I love them fried up in the skillet alongside a couple of over-easy eggs with a dash of salt and some crusty sourdough bread smothered with homemade raspberry jam. We don’t buy tomatoes from the store, so when the season is over, it’s really over. I enjoy tomatoes the same way I do baseball on the radio: I love it while it’s here, because like the great Rogers Hornsby said, when the season is over all we can do is “stare out the window and wait for spring.”
Nicely timed rains alternating with sunshine have brought on a flush of autumn growth in the pastures. We should have good grazing well into November. I could actually have taken a healthy second cutting of hay in some fields this year but have opted to leave it on the stem and let the horses and cattle harvest it under their own power instead. And why not? They are perfectly capable of walking out to the field and using their enameled harvesters to cut and chop their own meals. This of course makes me ponder the great mystery of the modern dairy farm where cows are kept confined and the feed brought to them year round. Naturally the up-to-date conventional dairyman will be heard, down at coffee in the vinyl booth at the cafe, complaining of machinery and fuel costs. Of course he’ll probably have worries about feed costs as well, since he likely raises very little of his own feed, instead purchasing his TMR’s from a giant feed science conglomerate. But I digress…
A Beautiful Surprise
One pleasant afternoon a fortnight ago I sent my new part-time farm hand Chris out to open the gate so we could haul a load of loose hay from the barn out to the loafing shed. Ole stood harnessed and a generous pile of hay waited by the open barn door when I heard Chris shout, “What should I do with the bull?” Or so I thought he said. I was sure he had, like so many cattle neophytes before him, mistaken one of our dexter cows for a bull because of her horns. I answered, “There’s no bull in there!” “No, the foal!” he hollered definitively. I knew in an instant that I was about to get a taste of organic, sustainably harvested humble pie. Turns out Josie, the 21-year-old Fjord mare had a surprise foal sired by Donald the young Suffolk stallion.
I had at various times considered that she may be bred and each time talked myself out of it. For starters I had (so I thought) meticulously avoided the occasion of Donald and Josie being together. There simply was no time that I am aware of when one had access to the other. I did travel for a day or two at various times and leave the farm in the care of hired help, so there are some gaps in my first-hand knowledge.
Then there is the fact that Josie has always been an exceptionally easy-keeper – read fat. Oh… how she does like her groceries! And she had lately been fed in company with several horses making it harder to monitor her hay intake. Ok, so she was getting that old familiar Josie belly again. I’d be fat too if I had a cream cheese Danish for every time over the last nine years that someone has asked me if that mare was pregnant. “Oh no,” I’d say, “that horse isn’t bred, but I tell you – she’ll over winter in style on a fifty pound bale of grass hay and scoop of oats – but pregnant? Nah!”
My thinking was also influenced by the fact that Josie is now 21 years old and fall was upon us and it was clearly the tail end of foaling season anyway. She wasn’t likely to be having a foal this late in the year.
Call me a fool; she went and had a perfectly lovely filly without the slightest help from me, at her age and at this time of year with that handsome stud as the dad.
Incidentally, I am thrilled with the prospect of a fjord punch. Or is she a Suffolk Norwegian? Whichever she is, I think she will be hardy, easy keeping, fast walking and willing. She should make a nice mid-sized animal for use on the buggy, single horse chore work, tedding and cultivating. She was also born with such a sweet disposition. She just wants to look at you with big dark eyes and sniff inquisitively with her tiny soft nose.
She is called Stella after the star on her forehead – Stella Maris in full – Latin for Star of the Sea. She was healthy and bright eyed from the start, a harbinger of joy – such as befits only the freshest and newest of creatures.
There are some lessons here. One is to not inflate the sense of our own importance as farmers, or to overly congratulate ourselves on our agrarian cleverness, or convince ourselves that the farm will come to a screeching halt without our wise and timely interventions. In addition to my surprise foal I also have surprise squash, tomatoes and tomatillos growing on the site of last year’s pigpen in the barnyard. What treasures of locally adapted genetics may be lurking in these volunteer plants I may never know. Like the bumper sticker “compost happens” – biology happens. Life on this earth is a powerful force and it marches on with or without our consent or participation.
We also need to trust the intuitive inner voice that sometimes gets drowned out with cold logic. I had wondered if Josie could be pregnant and repeatedly talked myself out of it. If it looks like a fish and swims like a fish it probably is a fish. I suppose I did have a bit of luck considering the size potential for foal sired but a larger horse, but thankfully Josie did very well birthing a healthy foal despite the entirely unconventional approach.
For the last three years I have been doing my civic duty and volunteering with the Granite Falls Historical Society by serving on its board of directors. Every year in early October the town honors it’s storied past by putting on Railroad Days, a big gathering with craft and food vendors, cider pressing at the museum and of course a big parade. Back in January, members of the board asked if I would be willing to bring a horse and drive the museum’s 1910 doctor’s buggy in the parade. I unhesitatingly agreed. The buggy really is a beauty and I loved the idea of representing the museum in grand style. How easy such an idea sounds in the depths of winter with the rain pouring down and the event yet months away. But how different the reality.
Fjord Ole was to be my parade horse. He is good looking, steady and has become my single horse of choice for light duty work. For several weeks I worked him every chance I got. To replicate the sound and feel of the doctor’s buggy, I drove him on pavement hitched to our old Amish buggy. I spruced up the nice black leather buggy harness that had been growing mildew, languishing unused in an old cardboard box. He looked for all the world like a horse ready for anything, well broke, quiet, gentle, level headed.
The parade was scheduled for Saturday. In the name of prudence and common sense I loaded Ole in the trailer and took him to town on Friday afternoon for a practice run. The last thing I wanted was a busted up 100-year-old buggy or an injured horse – or worse. I once witnessed a runaway stagecoach in Jackson Hole during a busy Saturday morning farmer’s market. The sight of a stagecoach careening around a busy intersection on two wheels, the driver pitched violently onto the pavement, horses in a full out, crazy eyed panic is not a scene I will soon forget.
As soon as Ole stepped out of the trailer at the museum I could see that he was uneasy. He knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore. I hooked him to the buggy and we drove around town just as the high school was letting out. Teenagers, some of whom I wanted to offer my suspenders to, what with their pants mostly falling off. Not risking a smile or any pretense of being impressed, most of them tried their best to look as if a horse and buggy were something they saw on the street everyday. We fairly flew through town. Not in a panic, just a nice energetic clip. Passing cars and pedestrians didn’t trouble him. Ole is not by nature a spooky or jumpy horse, but when I pulled up to a stop sign at an intersection he would not stand. He was just nervous enough that he would start to back up or side step. I would have him step-up then stop- and again he would nervously prance and dance. This was actually manageable at the time, not too worrisome by itself, but when I projected this behavior to parade day I began to have serious doubts about the wisdom the whole endeavor. Just trotting about town on a quiet weekday afternoon he was nervous as a chicken in a fox den. The parade would have the added excitement of marching bands, dancing girls, the Seafair Pirates and their antics, vintage muscle cars sans mufflers, fire truck sirens, flying candy and swarms of people cheering and clapping. By the time I got back around to the museum I knew that I couldn’t possibly attempt to drive Ole in the parade.
Ole is a solid, safe horse. I ride or drive him sometimes as much as five or six days a week. But he’s still a farm horse, born and raised at the end of a quiet country lane. He’s used to the clatter and rattle of machinery, dogs running up behind him; even the rustle of a feed sack or tarp doesn’t bother him. But take him out of his element and it was just too much. I have no doubt that given time and inclination I could make a parade horse out him. Appealing as it sounds, I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get around to it. After all I have a farm to run.
After looking over these notes I realize that I have told two tales of failure: that of an aborted parade attempt, and another of a foal that I didn’t see coming. Failure is as much a part of the farming life as success. When you opt for a life on the land you will, like C.S. Lewis, be “Surprised by Joy,” as I was at the birth of Stella. And you will have “the best laid plans” go awry, as I did with Ole and the parade. Sometimes you have to check your pride at the door and accept that what you had planned simply is not prudent. You must have the humility and the wisdom to know when you should cut your losses and wait for another day. A certain amateur agricultural columnist was hesitant to even write about said events for fear of sullying his carefully crafted media image. But it was determined that others may gain value and a certain comfort in knowing that failed plans and unexpected events happen democratically, without regard to one’s station in life or high opinion of oneself.