LittleField Notes: Journeys
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
I have over the years traveled near and far to buy or sell livestock and other farm related goods: to Missouri for a Suffolk team; Oregon for a dexter bull; Rexburg, Idaho for mature asparagus crowns; Thayne, WY for the original garlic seed stock that I still grow; Montana, Idaho and British Columbia for more Suffolk horses; eastern Washington for fjord ponies; other places too numerous to remember. I have found myself upriver and downstream, in dark hollers and backwoods, on open plains and majestic meadows, on petite farms and sprawling ranches, some neat as a pin, some so filthy I couldn’t leave fast enough, others so charming I wanted to linger a lifetime.
Farmers in our day tend to be an isolated bunch and we don’t ever seem to get enough good old fashioned farm-talk. So it is that when I travel to another farm to buy or sell, the visit often extends for significantly longer than the required time to make a transaction. I have spent countless enjoyable hours perched atop fence rails or with feet dangling off the lowered tailgate of a pick up engaged in pleasant conversation. Indeed, throw two farmers together in a muddy barnyard somewhere and the conversation seems to flow almost automatically from one topic to the next: animal genetics, breed characteristics, the rise and fall of livestock markets, pasture management, land prices, troubles with neighbors, debt and tractors, brand inspectors, regulations and the raw milk gestapo, and everything in between.
Most of these trips pass pleasantly enough, but in their ordinariness leave no lasting memory. Others leave quite an impression and become a story worth retelling.
I recently passed an afternoon pleasantly perched on the tailgate of my pickup visiting with a young farmer while 100 weaner pigs rooted and snorted around in a large temporary pen at the edge of a hay field. Weaner pigs were scarce this year, and I jumped at the opportunity to drive 45 minutes north to buy a couple. I was pleased to see that I recognized the place when I pulled in. Not that I knew who lived there, or their story, only that it was a place I had driven by and admired before. By its buildings and equipment, I was reminded of my own humble farming beginnings in a rank half-forgotten ten acre alfalfa field. By that I mean this was no post card farm with three story farmhouse and massive red gambrel barn. This was rather, a new operation, carved out of one corner of a field of maybe 100 acres. A couple of young kids played in the yard of the modest new house, likely built by the owner. Scattered among a few small sheds, quickly and inexpensively erected, were a number of ancient tractors and implements, some half torn apart, others bearing the telltale signs of recent fieldwork: fresh soil and quack grass roots hanging off of cultivator shanks, moist black compost residue in a tractor bucket. This farm bore all the signs of the youthful, hardworking, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps kind of farming that I admire. The kind I practiced in my beginnings, when I had more ambition and energy than time or money.
I drove through the gate and into the field. The farmer, perhaps in his mid to late thirties, ambled over to meet me. We shook hands tentatively, as we are just now starting to do again after a strange year of Covid taboos, a time when pandemic protocols came to almost feel normal.
Introducing himself as Charlie, he was guarded and cautious at first, thinking me to be just another greenhorn with the bright idea of raising a couple of pigs in his backyard. ‘Probably best to not be resentful of your customers,’ I thought. ‘But then again, who wouldn’t be after the inevitable incidents of piglets drowning in 5 gallon buckets or sickening after improper feeding.’ His tone mellowed and demeanor relaxed when he learned that I was no stranger to raising pigs. It wasn’t long before we were sitting on my dented tailgate talking about what farmers always talk about one with another: farming. That is to say: the difficulty of finding weaner pigs in this part of the country and how some guys are driving all the way to Iowa with a semi to buy a load of piglets to bring back to sell in the Northwest; how one unscrupulous fellow (whom, it turns out we both know) brings back nothing but runts he buys for next to nothing and sells for top dollar, passing them off as hardy stock to unsuspecting budding backyard homesteaders; how Charlie himself butchers beef and hogs on the side; how the local butcher shops are so busy that you can’t even be sure you’re getting your own meat, and how, despite asking for cutting instructions, everyone’s meat gets cut the same anyway; and how they’ll only hang a beef for 14 days when, for the very best beef you should go something like 30 to 40 days; how he used to grow 40 acres of certified organic vegetables, much of it for wholesale, and how it had nearly killed him, what with all those employees to manage, and trying to coordinate between the moneyed middle men and unforgiving harvest windows; how because he’d inherited 1/3 of his land, his neighbors think he’s just a rich trustfund kid playing at farming — “But,” he tells me, “had you driven by yesterday, you would have seen me out there forking out my broken down manure spreader by hand in the middle of the field! How many spoiled rich kids are you going to see doing that?” I nodded in the affirmative, telling him of the several times I’d done the same thing, sometimes in the dead of winter with the load half frozen. So went an amicable conversation while the sun of a perfect day in mid-May dipped down toward the San Juan Islands in the west.
Through a mutual acquaintance, Charlie had actually heard of me and the fact that I used horses for my farming. Charlie himself was not a horse guy, but he admired that I used them, and thought it a worthy pursuit. Naturally, we got to talking then about technology and machinery and how he has a plan to convert an ancient Farmall H to electric drive. “It’ll be great,” he said, “no noise, vastly less maintenance, no buying fuel and oil; and with the electric motor she’ll operate at incredibly low speeds, a huge boon when attempting precise cultivation in high value crops.” I admired his innovative spirit. “But,” he said, “this will still require me. I still have to show up.”
Not sure exactly what he meant by this, I gave him a puzzled look.
“These big farmers here in the valley,” he explained, “all they do anymore is sit in the tractor all day, hands free, looking at their phones while the tractor drives itself around the field, it’s all GPS.” I knew they had been putting GPSs in tractors for years, but I didn’t really know what that meant in practice. “Yea,” Charlie said, “the hardest work these guys do anymore is climb up into the tractor in the morning and back out in the evening.”
“I know what you mean,” I said chuckling at my forthcoming bad joke, “my horses are kind of the same way. Once we’ve made a few rounds, they know exactly what to do and I just tie up the lines and look at my phone for the rest of the day,” which is only halfway facetious, because of course the horses do learn the drill, and they do use their native intelligence to help me out in the field. Mostly I have to keep them from anticipating too much and cheating on the corners, but otherwise they are quite clever at picking the proper path.
Eventually we both knew that we had whiled away enough of the afternoon in idle chat. It was chore time and I still had the drive home. We shook hands and promised to stay in touch. I quickly selected my piglets, loaded them up, and headed out for home.
I remember well a trip to the B Bar ranch just north of Yellowstone National Park near Emigrant, Montana sometime around 2004. In those days the B Bar had probably the largest herd of Suffolk horses in any one place in the world. They kept two stallions and a good number of exceptional broodmares. Sadly the B Bar ended its breeding program and sold off its herd in 2012, though the good B Bar genetics still run wide and deep in the North American Suffolk population.
With sweeping high mountain vistas, lush meadows, and a beautiful horse barn, the B Bar was one of the most spectacular western ranches I have ever had the privilege of visiting. My legendary (in my mind) Belgian team Lester and Earl were aging and I had just lost a Suffolk mare to an aneurysm (while in harness) and I was shopping colts. They had a nice crop of two-year olds that year. At the time, master teamster Don Yerian was deftly managing the B Bar Suffolk program. I met him at the house, where, with his wry grin he told me he was doing “about average.” Without further ado he went to work and harnessed up a team of Suffolks and he drove me out on a farm wagon to survey the famous B Bar horses. He showed me the two stallions, Kingsland Royal, a truly impressive animal who had been imported from England, and Cumberland’s Ezra, who, as it turns out, is the sire of our Suffolk stallion Donald of Eagle Ridge. Next he drove us up the road through an exquisitely picturesque landscape to the pastures where the mares, colts and fillies were grazing.
I was taken by a two-year old dark liver gelding named Clark (he had a sibling named Lewis). Royal was his sire and B Bar Babe his dam. Clark was a really well built two-year old, but what really sold me on him was the sight of his parents. Babe was a dark liver chunk, of maybe 15 hands, a real old school plow horse. And of course there was Royal, his sire. What can I say about him? He was befitting of his name. Seeing Royal was like looking at the great lineage of the Suffolk horse, though now much reduced in number, all packed into one animal: the classic red chesnut* color, the proud intelligent head, the roman nose, the big kind eyes, solid bone, good muscle, and plenty of that special “punch” that puts the “punch” in Suffolk Punch. He was truly a specimen. Though Clark is gone now, a victim of a vicious case of ringbone and other health issues, I’m glad to be passing on those excellent B Bar genetics through Donald.
The story came full circle a few years ago when Don was in the area and stopped by Littlefield Farm on his way north. He had heard about Donald and wanted to get a first hand look at him (and why not, since Donald was named in his honor). I was glad to hear that Don thought Donald was a good one, well built, and a specimen himself. We walked around the barn and I showed him our other horses. I believe Clark was in his last days at that point, and when we got to talking about him I couldn’t believe my ears when Mr. Yerian stood there and recounted every detail of Clark’s early life: exactly what day and year he was born, his whole family tree, and of course, he remembered that wonderful day when he drove me around the ranch and showed me those beautiful chesnut horses.
*By tradition, ‘chestnut,’ when referring to a Suffolk, is spelled without the middle ‘t’.
Sometimes I get stuck in a habit or manner of doing things. We all do to a certain degree I suppose, and typically the older we get, the more entrenched become our ways. I’ve been cultivating the garden with the same walking cultivator with the same horse for so many years I can’t remember doing it any other way. The cultivator is an old one of unknown make and model. I begged it off a neighbor back in Wyoming many years ago. He remembered his Dad using it in their vegetable patch when he was a kid. It was just lying around in an old shed cultivating nothing but rust and rot. And so one day, in an attempt at explaining to him the whys and hows of my crazy horse-farming dream, he just gave it to me, half disbelieving that I was going to actually use it. I like that it has shovels on the outside, not only to throw soil into the row, but also to help maintain my planting beds throughout the growing season. Seventeen year-old fjord pony Ole, who has been working on this farm for precisely as many years as I have, and who loves to cultivate as much as I do, knows his business. Coming around at the ends of the rows with a quiet “gee” and “haw” and a little pressure from the lines on my hips, he picks out the next row without help from me. He jogs up and down the rows and finishes up in short order. We pause after to catch our breath, admiring our good clean work and the crisp allure of the freshly worked garden.
I enjoy it.
Ole enjoys it.
A good horse, a good tool, good results.
Why change a thing?
No reason, really, except that I got to thinking about our routine after watching by chance, a video of what I think was an Ardennes draft horse cultivating a vineyard in Bordeaux. It was not so different from what we do: one man, one horse, one tool working early summer soil up and down rows. There was one notable exception however: this horse was walking very, very slowly. The slow pace afforded the teamster the opportunity to cultivate with beautifully delicate precision. It really was a striking scene, well filmed, showing in close detail the heavy footfalls of the horse and the skilled maneuvering of the tool by the teamster behind.
When I went out recently to cultivate, the scene of that French vineyard replayed in my mind as Ole and I started down the first row. He walked off at his usual clip, and I realized suddenly that all these years I had mostly been letting him set the pace, him striding out smartly, like pulling a carriage — great if you are driving a carriage — but an entirely different story if you are wending your way among baby carrots. So trying to imitate that big French horse, I told my little Norwegian pony that we are both getting older and we are, by gosh, going to take it a little easier. And he listened; at least he tried. Our work was a little ragged maybe, disjointed even, but certainly not a failure. I like to think that if we work at it, I’m teamster enough, and he horse enough, to set a new pace. We may learn yet, we two, to slow down.