LittleField Notes: Winter 2010
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe Finnerty
It was with surprise and humbled excitement that I agreed to Lynn Miller’s suggestion that I write a column for this, our treasured Small Farmer’s Journal; this agrarian guidebook that so many of us have come to rely on and savor over the years. I have always said that if I had to choose between buying food or renewing my SFJ subscription I would go hungry. This magazine truly has had a profound impact on my life over the years. It has always been amply endowed with matters of practical know-how joined with a philosophical wisdom that has never been afraid of romance and poetry. It really is a place to come for reassurance, for consolation, for hope. The present world in which we live has no spreadsheet or bottom line accounting for slowness, for craft, for art, for poetry lived. Right livelihood should include a fair dose of intangible sweetness. The Journal has all this and more. It has always been there, reiterating good sense like a reassuring grandfather, assuaging fears when my self induced agricultural isolation threatened to envelop me in a fog of doubt and uncertainty.
And so I will try my hand at some agricultural scribblings of my own and add one more voice to the rising national chorus of food and farming awareness. I have been involved with workhorses for some 22 years. As a 16 year old kid, fiddle and guitar in hand, I hired on as a campfire entertainer with a dude outfit treating city-slickers to wagon train adventures in the Gross Ventre Mountains of western Wyoming. I found myself lured in by the romance and beauty of draft horses, and before long found myself learning to drive and harness alongside the older masters of the craft with whom I worked day-in and day-out throughout two memorable summers. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, an informal apprenticeship or sorts was taking place. I was getting a whale of an education, free for the asking.
I worked on numerous working ranches and dude operations in Montana and Wyoming during my college years playing music and wrangling horses and dudes. Through it all I never could get the big horses out of my consciousness. I kept thinking to myself “this hauling people in wagons is swell, but wouldn’t it be fabulous to plow a field, plant a crop, mow some hay?”
From the humble beginnings of planting an acre of vegetables on a large town lot using a rented roto-tiller, I worked my way up to a 10 acre fresh market farm at 6200 ft elevation near Afton, Wyoming. In the early days I capitalized the place from gigs and teaching income, which gave me summers off to work the farm. Eventually I was able to quit teaching and farm full time. Starting with a patch of old alfalfa, we transformed it into a family supporting, vibrant homestead in a harsh mountain climate; many were the nay sayers who said it couldn’t be done. We build a house, greenhouses, root cellars, harvest and wood sheds; we salvaged and moved and old horse barn. I also assemble a respectable line of horse drawn machinery. We never did own a tractor and never had to take on any debt other than that of the land and house. By selling specialty produce to up-scale restaurants, frequenting one farmer’s market, and starting a 50 member CSA, we always remained profitable, an oft overlooked, though immensely important aspect of sustainability. There is nothing sustaining about a farm that loses money year after year.
For a couple of winters I fed elk with teams for the Wyoming Game and Fish department and eventually found myself here in the great Northwest, still chasing the dream.
I wound up in a beautiful and quiet corner of the world known as Littlefield Farm. Nestled in the fertile valley of the South Fork of the Stilliguamish River, in Northwestern Washington, the farm is 115 acres of loveliness; pastures and fields are carved out of a landscape defined by the natural contours of the river and its several tributaries on one side, and the foothills and western most beginnings of the mighty Cascade Range, on the other. The farm borders three quarters of a mile of the river on its northeastern edge. Salmon can be heard in the fall as they make their way up river to spawning grounds where they lay eggs on the gravel bottoms and die, becoming food for the eagles and coyotes that haunt these shores. Western Red Cedar, Douglas Fir, Red Alder, Vine and Big Leaf Maple are the most common trees populating the edges of the fields and hillsides. In the under-story of alders and in the sunnier margins are found native salmon berry and that ubiquitous northwest invader, the blackberry- the tastiest, thorniest weed around. The fields are a diverse mix of clovers and grasses growing in rich, loamy soil, teaming with earth worms and smelling richly of humus. And no wonder; this farm has, for the last fifty years, raised only black angus beef cattle. No plowing, no row cropping, no extractive practices.
I answered a help wanted ad in the back of the Journal and made my first inquiring visit to the farm, known as the old Hjort place, in 2005. The first thing that struck me about the place was the farm lane. Picturesque, and pastoral, it seemed to invite one to enter through the gate and walk down the narrow two-track through tidy, tree bordered hay fields and hence to the farmhouse. After three fairly major renovations, the old house, now quite large considering its modest beginnings, sits tucked behind a carefully planted row of majestic cedars on one side, and impressive, century old rhododendrons on the other. The barn is a short walk down the hill from the house. And if the classic farmhouse and upper fields were not enough to sell me, the barn sealed the deal. Build around 1912, it is constructed of hewn timbers with shiplap fir siding and an intact hay trolley housed in a majestic haymow that embodies all the lofty grandeur of the great cathedrals of Europe. On the western boundary of the farm a thirty foot waterfall hides surreptitiously behind a giant cedar that the early loggers surprisingly passed over. While standing near the falls in the winter months, with the water raging at its fullest, all sense of space and time distorts; the cool mist of the falls showers you with an alive freshness that would awaken any hardened soul to the wonders of creation.
It appeared to be a splendid storybook farm. To complete the picture the farm needed only livestock, crops and equipment. In 2006 I was hired by Ed Littlefield Jr. to manage the place and transform it into a working horsepowered farm. Ed had recently doubled his land holdings by adding the old Hjort place to the 50 acres on which he had established a farm and recording studio in the 1970’s. Ed has long been known as a benefactor and proponent of good farming and of the arts, particularly traditional acoustic music. He can be heard on numerous albums, and tours with his band Marley’s Ghost. It is a pleasure to be associated with someone of Ed’s means who thoroughly understands the fundamental importance of, and is committed to, keeping small farms alive and prosperous. In addition to enjoying the fresh food grown on the farm, Ed and his wife, Laura, support me in my efforts to transform Littlefield Farm into a working example of a modern horse powered farm.
At the present time we are raising Irish Dexter cattle, Suffolk and Norwegian fjord horses, pigs, chickens and turkeys. We grow a big garden, put up loose hay in the barn, and are beginning to grow our own grains. It is a work in progress: the restoration of a farm of the old school, where livestock and crops are grown side by side, one to feed the other.
It is important work: the preservation of tools, breeds, techniques and, perhaps most importantly, knowledge. For what is the good of that old walking plow stored out in the shed, without knowledge of its use; or heirloom seed stocks that can’t be perpetuated due to lack seed saving knowledge; or the team that stands idle in the pasture because no one remembers how to throw the harness on and go to work.
I frequently get calls from people desperate for knowledge. Good folks who want to farm, who understand the potential working animals hold for the future of farming, who understand the importance of scale in agriculture. Unfortunately the common knowledge and skills of a working agrarian culture are no longer with us to the extent they once were. That generation that grew up on small diverse farms with horses as the main source of power are nearly gone. Very few remain who can tell first hand how to rig a three abreast hitch, take the kink out of a new hay trolley rope, restore a worn plow share, smoke a ham, butcher a turkey. And just how do you get the manure spreader drive chain apart when it works itself loose, falls off and jams up the whole machine, ripping off a piece of the sideboard with it? What to do when your bull breaks down the gate and leads his cows across the river to the neighbors? This stuff happens. It is the work-a-day reality of operating a farm. Dealing with these kinds of situations handily requires a set of skills born of experience.
Unfortunately, through no fault of their own, many young people today have surprisingly little knowledge of, or exposure to livestock of any kind, much less horses in harness. Additionally, they seem to lack basic tool sense and common knowledge of how to fix things. Most simply didn’t grow up around tools and repairs, and gardens and livestock. My dad always changed his own oil and fixed the truck if he could; he built the house we lived in; he was always tinkering with some project or other, and we always had a big garden. As a consequence, I grew up surrounded by tools and had exposure at an early age to the knowledge of every day problem solving. Now we find ourselves rapidly becoming a culture of specialists, all too eager to exchange our hard earned cash for something that we could, with a little effort and knowledge, do for ourselves. There seems to be a specialist for everything, from medicine to mechanics, eager to fix just what ails us. I am here to champion the time-honored jack-of-all-trades, the original do-it-yourselfer, the farmer.
One of the beauties of horse farming, and of small-scale technologies in general, is the simplicity of the machinery: honest and straight-forward, with workings elegantly simple and self evident. With a crescent wrench, a hammer, some study and patience, anyone of average intelligence can fix most anything.
And so I come to the objective of this column: to chronicle the everyday realities of work on a small farm, and address through the lens of my experience the philosophical and practical issues inherent to the craft of small farming. I will present a sort of farm diary, like a ships log, detailing the farming year here at Littlefield Farm. I will occasionally include a “how-to” section based on the farming challenges we face throughout the course of the year including the breakdowns, repairs, illnesses, births, deaths, training, field work, cropping decisions, timing, breeding, equipment, rotations, successes and failures.
I am not writing a column out of my own inflated sense of importance, or to imply that I am some kind of farming superhero. I am just a regular guy who answered an internal summons to farm. I felt I had no choice; it was a Calling. Undoubtedly, there exist better horsemen, farmers with a better grasp of soil science, more meticulous record keepers, finer shop craftsmen and better problem solvers. I am just one who has been stubborn enough, and perhaps naive enough, to stick with it through thick and thin, to keep trudging when the going got tough. Through extensive trial and error, reading and practical experience, I have gained a decently well-rounded grasp of how to operate a farm as an organic whole. I have done everything from training colts to selling chefs squash blossoms and mache; butchering hogs to building greenhouses; milking cows and goats to restoring rusty hay tedders and cultivators.
I dove head first into the small farming school of deep water, and though I recognize that this head-first approach is not always the best way, and that it certainly isn’t for everyone, I have learned a tremendous amount over the years. My experiences have ranged form glorious to sublime, tumultuous to routine. And the education and adventure continue every day. That’s the beauty of life on the farm: never a dull moment, always a curve ball to try and hit, always a fresh start; and like baseball, spring always follows winter with a chance to start all over again. If I can pass on a little bit of knowledge and wisdom by exposing my own follies and foibles, successes and secrets, then perhaps others can enrich and enhance their own farming experiences from those of mine.
The time is ripe for new small farms and farmers. So if you haven’t started yet, go ahead… get your feet wet… or better yet, dive on in!
The water’s fine. Yes… very fine.