LittleField Notes: Pineapple Express
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
When I opened the kitchen door early this morning I was met by warm humid air and the sound of torrential rain. A monsoon, I thought. It’s what North-westerners call a “Pineapple Express,” a warm atmospheric river that follows the jet stream straight from Hawaii. The moisture laden clouds stack up against the Olympic and Cascade Mountains and the sky lets loose. It’s not uncommon for mountain areas to receive 5-10 inches of rain in a 24-hour period. Littlefield Farm sits in the foothills of the North Cascades and is a mighty wet little corner of the world. With 60 or more inches of rain at the farm annually, we are in the midst of only a handful of temperate rain forest regions of the world.
It takes some getting used to- all this damp: the mud, the mildew, the rust, the rot, the moss, the chill. One gray day follows another in seemingly endless succession. That singular Northwest meteorological term “sun-break” is an event to be celebrated: a momentary rift in the clouds that admits a pool of sunlight, giving hope to a people in darkness. The theological corollaries are none too subtle.
Some people never do get used to it. They stay for a while and when the mossy, drippy gloom becomes too much they pack up and head east- to Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, or south to Arizona, New Mexico, California.
Yesterday the rain fell all day. It continued through the night and when I walked to the barn this morning in the grey light of dawn, still it fell, unrelenting: water streaming down the road, downspouts gushing, rain pouring in streams off my oilskin hat. The spring water in the ditch that runs through the two lower pastures was well over its banks, flowing in streams out through the fields, finding and filling the low spots, creating ponds and pools where dozens of ducks and a few Canada geese floated happily about, oblivious to the water running off their backs.
I was surprised to see that the horses had shunned the loafing shed and instead stood in the downpour, the rain dripping off their bellies into the mud. After opening the gate and watching them head for the tie stalls in the barn for their morning ration, I took a peek in the shed and immediately understood why no horse would stand there. It was completely flooded. A recent cold snap had frozen the ground causing much of the rain that would previously have run into the ground to flow over top where it settled into the low area of the recently mucked out shed. Much of the sawdust bedding I had put down the previous night floated like an oil slick on the surface of the water. I’ll have to reshape the landscape around the shed and redirect the runoff in an effort to prevent future flooding.
Ruler of the World
Donald’s run up the hill but his tether, man
As he were wud, or stinged wi’ an ether, man
When he comes back there’s some will look merrily
Here’s to King James and to Donald McGillivray
Some have commented to me that Donald seems an awkward and surprising name for a horse, and I will admit it took a little getting used to. But when an animal comes to you with a name, he can’t simply be unnamed. Pushing aside associations with Donald Duck, I have come to identify his name instead with the 18th century Scottish song “Donald McGillavry” about the Jacobite uprising of 1745. Now the name begins to take on an heroic air: a stolid old Scotts name pregnant with that dignity and strength of character befitting a stallion. Indeed “Donald” comes from Gaelic and means “Ruler of the World.” Certainly a mighty Suffolk stallion must see himself as no less than the ruler of at least his world, if not all of it. Winter mornings of late, while harnessing him to go feed the cows I’ll sing, “Donald’s run o’er the hill…”
Our Donald is a funny fellow with loads of personality. Nightly he makes his deposits in one tidy pile squarely in front of the door through which I easily fill the manure spreader. Money can’t buy that kind of cleverness, “Donald will clear the gowks nest cleverly…”
Mornings, we have a game we play. When I go to fetch him, whether he has spent the night in the pasture or in his pen in the barn, I expect him to put his head over the gate while I slip his halter on. Only then do I open the gate and lead him to the barn. At least that’s the way it’s supposed to go. Usually though, he’ll put his head over and when I reach up with the halter he will back away. Like many of us, he wants it both ways. He wants to come in and enjoy some oats, but doesn’t really want to give up his freedom either. If he backs away I’ll turn and make like I’m going to leave him in the field. After several convincing steps I’ll stop, look over my shoulder and ask, “You ready now?” Usually he is. On the second go-around he’ll stand with his head at my shoulder while I slip on the halter and we’ll walk off together, me chuckling at his silliness and singing “Gie them full measure, Donald McGillavry…”
It’s a promising clear fall morning in the barn. I rest my head against Lilac’s warm flank as streams of pure white milk flow into the bucket. Closing my eyes, I relax into the milking, reflecting that haec est dies quam fecit Dominus, and that it does indeed hold great promise. After all there’s not a place I’d rather be than right here on this stool, in this barn at this singular moment in space and time. The old girl shifts a back leg, snapping me out of my reverie and I carefully attend to my bucket and its precious contents. Resettling my head, I survey the interior of the barn from my perch on the stool. I see a surprising number of eyes looking back at me: a half a dozen hens scratch around after spilled grain in the floor of the barn; a fjord horse looks over the rail fence of the pen behind me; a dachshund sniffs my boots and looks up at me from her stubby legs; the bronze breasted turkey stares sideways at me with his wild-eye; the peahen who adopted us some years ago walks through the scene while the orange barn cat watches from a pool of sunshine as if he’s the only one there. No less than seven animal species are there arrayed in front of me- each enjoying the morning in its own way. It is a scene only a small farm can provide, a picture of diversity. I could sit for hours and simply watch the interplay, one with the other. The cat will rub against the legs of the young black lab pup; the hens, in their own secret language, convey excitement to the others when one has found an enticing tidbit; the little red calf watches intently for me to finish with the milking to see if I’ve left anything for him; and just in case I may have forgotten who was in charge, Rex Goliath, the barred rock rooster deftly jumps to the top rail and crows his little heart out. Such a show! Such interplay of personality and proclivity.
A fine start to the day!
Keeping up with the winter mucking by hand in a big old-fashioned barn is a daunting task for an aging fellow. A Monday back in late November found me mucking the cow pen while Donald and Star waited patiently with the manure spreader. In my zeal I strained, sprained or otherwise damaged a muscle in my right arm while lifting a particularly wet, heavy forkful. “You’re not 19 anymore!” I chastised myself. “Take it easy and work smarter or you’ll find yourself forced to hunt a paper pushing job in a tall building somewhere!” After all, unless you are planting 5,000 acres of soybeans with an air-conditioned, satellite guided, laser-level equipped tractor, farming is physical, hard work. There’s no way around it. Or is there?
Later that night, reflecting with an ice pack on my arm, I began to rethink the way I had been doing business at the barn. All this handwork is a good way to get the heart pumping- not a bad thing, per se, but it sure takes a lot of sustained energy and time. It is easy to become overwhelmed. Indeed, what is manageable if done incrementally can quickly snowball into a nearly impossible task if proper daily maintenance, for whatever reason gets neglected.
Though space in the barn pens is pretty tight, I was actually considering buying a skid loader to make the mucking more efficient. I then realized that with recent corral restructuring and improved access to the northeast side of the barn I might have some new options. I could now use my nifty one-horse scraper to move the bulk of the manure outside where I could then load it directly in the spreader with the backhoe. The old scraper had been sitting unused in an out of the way corner of the machine shed for several years now.
I acquired the scraper at the end of a long day at the SFJ auction several years ago. It looks to me like some innovative farmer welded it up in his shop with a few pieces of scrap iron and a couple of wooden handles. And oh… is it ever handy! I can hook Star up to a single tree (you want to use an older, quiet horse), tie the lines behind my back, and mostly just whisper some gees and haws and whoas and go’s and in short order move a prodigious amount of manure and bedding. I simply mound it up outside the door on the concrete slab then scoop it up with the backhoe: easy as eating apple pie, and nearly as pleasurable at that.
I think lots of farms could well use a scraper of this sort. I would encourage some of the enterprising modern horse drawn machinery companies such as Pioneer, I & J and White Horse to consider producing a tool as such. Pioneer already makes a dandy scraper to go behind their forecart, but its size makes it difficult to get into really small, tight spaces.
I am thrilled that the scraper is working out so well because the idea of buying and maintaining a skid loader does not appeal to me. I already have the backhoe for bucket work and the last thing I want is another motorized vehicle to maintain. Also, I once gave myself a not-so-healthy dose of carbon monoxide poisoning while chain sawing some firewood in what I thought was a well enough ventilated machine shed. After that experience driving a skid loader inside the barn doesn’t hold much appeal.
With a likely doubling of our horse numbers over the next few years, I think this handy one-horse scraper will take on an even more important role in the ever-present task of manure management. That $120 initial investment will pay for itself again and again. And who doesn’t love a simple, elegant horse-powered solution to a problem otherwise solved by an expensive, complicated machine?