LittleField Notes: Fall 2015
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Only One Bad Day
Today was butchering day. The last flush of reddish brownish yellowish bigleaf maple leaves floated nonchalantly, drifting this way and that, on unseen currents to settle on the already leaf-carpeted ground. The low sun of Indian summer felt pleasantly warm, the kind of day we wish could go on forever. Tomorrow I’m told, the rain will return, but for today we basked in what was likely to be one of the last of such bucolic days.
For the two-year-old heifer and the two fat hogs this fine day was their last. We are tempted to feel a great sadness at willfully bringing on the deaths of such innocent creatures, sometimes to the point of calling off the coming slaughter altogether, but all lives must necessarily come to an end, including our own. We all draw our lifeblood from the deaths of others. Quite simply, life cannot exist without death. No matter how we try to parse it, there is no escaping this fundamental truth. The farm brings us face to face with that ultimate and final reality like no other place. Small farmers do not outsource death the way the rest of society has, pushing it back and handing it over to professionals behind the closed doors of industry. Even the humblest kale plant requires that other plants (and indeed animals- worms, bugs, bacteria, fungi) have died for it to draw its lifeblood from the rotted organic remains of those who went before. Compost is the distillation of death. I’m reminded of the story of a young person working on a friend’s farm in Victor, Idaho years ago who quit the job after being asked to tear out a spent bed of red Russian kale. “It’s just too much killing!” she exclaimed. Oh my.
If we farmers are responsible to the point of choosing the hour and minute of death so too is it our responsibility to provide the very best life possible for the animals and plants under our care. We have a saying on Littlefield Farm that our animals have Only One Bad Day. Every moment up to that final instant should be one appropriate to the needs of each creature: chickens scratching in the barnyard for bugs and spilled oats; hogs contentedly rooting and greedily devouring scraps from our kitchens and culls from our gardens; cattle eating grass and clover and resting in fertile pastures. So it has always been. That is until Industry had the notion, in the interest of greed-driven efficiency, of turning fields into wastelands and farms into factories, where for most animals, every day is a living hell. Is it any wonder so many people have quit meat entirely?
The butcher truck rumbles down the hill from the house and eases into the barnyard. The three fellows inside I haven’t seen in exactly one year. We shake hands, praise the weather and they set to work: three shots yield three instant deaths followed by the sound of knife blade on sharpening-steel, the careful peeling back of hide and of saw on bone. Forty-five minutes later the carcasses are halved and hanging in the refrigerated truck. We shake hands again and the truck lumbers back up the drive. The butchers have one more farm to visit before heading back to the shop. I do the math and realize it will be well after dark before they finish up for the day.
The small butcher shop can only exist if there are small farms to support it. I feel fortunate to have not one, but two local mobile abattoirs in our area. On-farm butchering eliminates the stress of transporting animals to the butcher. One alternative of course, is to do your own butchering. The old time hog-killin’ can be a wonderful communal event, with fire under the scalding tub, cracklin’s sizzling, lard rendering, sausage grinding, and fresh pork barbecued at day’s end. Lately though, with an increase in age and corresponding decrease in ambition, and admiring the speed and ease with which the local butchers work, I have been content to have them accomplish in 45 minutes what would have taken me from dark to dark.
I was in the barn trimming our new Suffolk mare June the other day. I worked my way around hoof-picking, nipping and rasping: front left, back left, back right. All was well until I came to the last hoof- the front right. Reluctantly she lifted it but I could see right away that her balance was precarious at best. Her back left leg was cocked, hip down in that way that horses have of standing on three legs. At this point though she was essentially standing on only two, what with me holding one foot and she resting on the other. I could tell right away that this would never do: a horse is not built to stand on two legs and me, at 145 lbs am not built to hold up 1600 pounds of horse. So I put the foot down, and seeking a better setup backed her up two steps and tried again. She instantly settled back in that same position- left hind resting. Again I backed her and tried to make her stand on her three available legs so I could work on the fourth. Again and again I moved her: sideways this way, backwards that way, and sideways the other way yet again. Alas, it was not to be. She simply insisted on resting on that same leg each time. So be it, I thought. I left her to her thoughts and busied myself sweeping the tack room, putting some buckets away, and generally puttering about setting the barn in order, Bristol fashion. After a time I came back, nippers in hand, whereupon she picked up her foot and stood there like a farrier’s poster child while I trimmed that last hoof before putting her back in her stall. What a curious thing is the mind of a horse. It will give you wondrous opportunities to practice patience and maybe just give you that excuse you’ve been looking for to tidy up the barn.
Farmer to Farmer
I recently returned from my first time attending Farmer-to-Farmer, an annual gathering of like minded Northwest horse farmers at Ruby and Amber’s Organic Oasis, a fine horse-powered farm that Walt Bernard and Kris Woolhouse operate in Dorena, Oregon.
Walt asked if I would bring my Pioneer Homesteader to showcase during the field demonstration portion if the event. Happy to do so, I loaded it and its varied and sundry attachments in the horse trailer, jumped on I-5 and headed south.
In our part of the world horse farmers are a scarce lot, so it was really wonderful to spend time with a whole crowd of like-minded folk. The event included seminars, round table discussions, slide shows, field demonstrations and an almost continual stream of informal chatter. A casual observer randomly listening in would likely hear snippets such as:
“That mare’s turned out all right, but she sure came with a load of baggage.”
“…and how is Don Yerian, anyway?” “Oh, as he says- ‘About average.'” “He sure is an incredible teamster.”
“Why do you suppose that old international cultivator doesn’t have a master lever the way the McCormicks do?” “Not sure…old timers sometimes stuck to what they liked and knew even after something supposedly better came along. After all, McCormick continued to sell a lot of #7s even after the improved #9 mowers came out.” “Ya, but the #7’s are quieter…”
“I decided after hilling all our potatoes by hand this year- never again!” “Yes, it sure puts it in perspective when you consider that with hiller discs on a cultivator you can hill a 300 ft row in as long as it takes a pair of horses to walk 300 feet- what- maybe 30 seconds?”
“So I’ve been leaning towards getting some fjords. You’ve been using them, what you think about them as a breed?” “Oh, they are willful beasts with the mind of a pony, but you won’t find a hardier, tougher or more hard working creature anywhere.”
The first day field demonstrations showcased three different new tool carriers: Annie’s All in One, the Pioneer Homesteader and Walt’s own creation the ‘G’ Haw tool carrier. Due to intermittent heavy rain, the demonstrations were run inside a couple of hoop houses, which in itself was an intriguing demonstration. The idea of working horses right inside is one that merits serious attention from market gardeners.
The Annie’s All-In-One is a versatile walk-behind tool carrier which can be pulled by a team or single horse. The handles are fully adjustable both up and down as well as side-to-side. The horse can be hitched offset to accommodate certain bed conditions. It is a simple matter to swap out the various tools including cultivator, hillers, furrowers, rake and ripper tooth. The All-In-One seemed right at home working inside the hoophouses. I admired its lightweight simplicity and practical flexibility. It really opens up a whole new range of options for the farmer who is looking seriously at getting real work done in the market garden with a single horse.
The Pioneer Homesteader is built on the same basic principal as the old straddle row cultivator once common in row crop country throughout North America. It has several marked improvements however, over it’s older counterparts. To begin with, this tool is not so much a cultivator as it is a complete tillage tool for the small farm, ideally suited to the market garden. It has everything needed to get a solid start farming with horses, from primary tillage all the way through to hilling, cultivating and harvesting. Available attachments include: 10″ moldboard plow, disc, spring tooth harrow, hiller discs, potato plow/ridger, and ‘S’ tine cultivator. The unit has pedal steering that can be enabled or locked as needed. It can be adjusted in a variety of ways including: toolbar leveling with a turnbuckle, tool bar depth-set with a single lever and three wheel spacing options. With the quick removal of two pins, tools are quickly and easily swapped out.
One aspect I particularly appreciate about the Homesteader is that the tools are all in plain view in front of the teamster. No more craning your neck to see how many baby kale plants you’ve just ripped up after your course strayed. Everything is laid out before you in plain sight.
Another important improvement over the old style cultivators is the safety of the unit. At Farmer-to-Farmer there was some joking about straddle row cultivators being a “death trap.” That may have been a bit of hyperbole, but really, the way you have to climb up on top of the machine and then ease yourself down into it calls to mind wedging oneself down into a World War I tank. If you get into trouble there’s really no graceful or easy exit. You feel like your legs and self are entwined in a web of iron and wheels and shovels, and if the horses take off you’d better hope you can ride as fast as they can run! And you’d better hope against hope that the thing stays upright. The Homesteader is completely open on the left side so you merely walk between the wheel and seat and sit right down. If you do get in a pickle, with the tool bar in front and the opening at the side you’ll like your chances of getting free if you have to.
A number of folks had been intrigued by this machine but never had actually seen one in person; hence the value of an event like Farmer-to-Farmer. To be able to see first-hand a machine in action, and ask questions of people that are actually using it, can go a long way towards clarifying whether or not a certain tool is worth the not-insignificant investment that a new Homesteader or the Annie’s All-In-One requires.
There were plenty of oohs and aahs when Walt hitched up his new farm fabricated tool carrier. He calls his new machine the ‘G’ Haw in part because he drew his initial inspiration from that classic cultivating tractor the Allis Chalmers ‘G.’ What a marvel of home-built ingenuity! This machine sports re-purposed RV hydraulics to raise and lower the two tool bars, steering, castor wheels and rugged construction. We watched in awe as he used first two horses and then one cleverly offset single horse to cultivate in a wide-bed, 3-row system right inside a hoop house. A very impressive showing of what resourcefulness and hard work can accomplish in the farm shop. Watching the ‘G’ Haw in action I couldn’t help but think that the future of horse farming looks bright indeed.
The Farmer-to-Farmer weekend felt like a mini Horse Progress Days – full of energy, ideas and enthusiasm for the shared ideal of good farming with good animals. I would encourage other such regional gatherings across the country. There is nothing like a coming-together of like-minds to send everyone off inspired and reinvigorated for the long and often difficult, but ultimately rewarding endeavor of practicing good small farming.