The Ram Truck Super Bowl Ad. Let’s talk about this for a minute. Let’s talk about the fact that we didn’t watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. We were at the farm. Fixing broken water lines, setting up a stove pipe, tending sick animals in the barn. We didn’t even see this add until early this morning when a bunch of friends and family members emailed it to us. Let’s talk about the fact that the text of Paul Harvey’s speech is totally beautiful and totally right on. That is actually what it’s like. Even if it is an absurdly romanticized version of what it’s actually like. And let’s go ahead and get it out of the way the happy fact that Dodge will donate a million dollars in proceeds from the ad to the FFA, a most worthy cause. And let me also get out of the way the fact that our farm owns a Dodge Ram 3500 and we are very pleased with it.
But after the beautiful, God-filled images are done, once Harvey’s eloquent storytelling passes, I am jolted out of my teary-eyed revery when I read the words: “for the farmer in you.” And suddenly I know how Paul McCartney felt when Michael Jackson allowed Nike to use “Revolution” in one of their ads. It’s my life, it’s the life of thousands of people, and it’s really hard and it’s really real, and it’s being used to sell cars. And that feels weird.
As Americans, I think there is a “farmer in all of us.” Thomas Jefferson’s vision for America was “a nation of farmers.” We have been an agrarian society for some time. Until very recently. Very recently, farming has become a an industrialized behemoth, growing vast monocultures, practiced by a vanishing few and to a large extent, propped up through government subsidies. This is not what Jefferson had in mind. As a result, farming is mostly a nostalgic notion rather than a lived reality. And that is what Dodge is capitalizing on. We miss our farming roots. We love and respect everything about what Harvey says. But we don’t live it. We aren’t farmers. Instead there is an elusive farmer “in us” that needs attention. So, they hope we buy it. They hope drive a big truck we probably don’t need in order to cling to that American farming ideal. Dodge has successfully commodified the feeling of farming to match up with the rest of agriculture. It feels kind of ikky.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I dig capitalism, I’m cool with advertising, and I’m definitely cool with using romance to sell stuff. I, too, use the romance of farming to sell my product. But I do so in the service of a farm. To a small family business. To all that this ad holds up. Dodge is leveraging that feeling to sell a truck. And while trucks are part of the farming landscape, Dodge has manipulated our collective love of farming, or at least our collective love of the idea of farming as understood through a single object and linked that object to something that sheer profit can’t touch, all in order to make a profit. So kudos to Madison Ave. Don Draper says a resounding “YES!” But don’t be fooled. The farmer in you can do better than buy a truck.
The next time anyone asks us why we farm, I’m not going to answer, I’m just going to give them this article.
The next time you think about the prospect of farming for yourself, or even just getting you garden going in the Spring, and you think to yourself, I don’t have time, I’m not ready, in short, thinking of all the things about your live you may lose by changing it in the direction of Nature, read this article.
I’m having a moment. It’s the moment, right before lambing, right before milking, right before the work of the year kicks off that makes me crazy. It is the feeling that something is coming. Something is coming and I need to step up. It’s what a swimmer feels right before she jumps in the pool for a big race, the feeling a gymnast has in that fraction of a second, whirling through the air: “am I going to stick this?” It’s a precipice and it sucks. It’s a moment of being out of control, relying entirely on your training, on your habits, on circumstance, but not on your mind. Unwelcome thoughts appear in my mind: what if all the lambs die? What if they’re all too small? What if they’re all too big? What if all the ewes die? Or get mastitis? What if they never go into milk? Are they even pregnant? How will I make cheese this year if the ewes aren’t even pregnant? What if they’re all born early?What if not enough ewes are pregnant to make enough cheese to pay the bills?
It goes on and on… my mind spins and frets in its knowledge that it is useless here. It’s all just going to happen. It’s like I’m riding this wave, this wave called Mother Nature and I’m begging her to work with me, to not toss me around or crush me. I don’t want to end up face-first in the sand (or a coral reef, for that matter!); I’m pleading with her to work with me so I can ride this transition, to stick this landing… to make it to the other side.
When we butchered our old laying hens a couple of weeks ago, we also butchered about six roosters who had been living among the hens, fertilizing eggs and maintaining the pecking order, as it were. We butchered them last. We should have done them first when our energy was freshest. Roosters are some tough mothas! Their skin is tough to cut, requiring constant re-honing of the knives, and their cavities are impossible to open up: it took the full-strength of both my arms to pull them open enough to remove their innards. You can actually see the striations in the bands of muscle tissue, the thought of which made my jaws clench in fear of excessive mastication and the need for dental floss. To look at an old rooster carcass, one imagines a meat that has more in common with rubber bands than with actual food.
Thinking of cooking these roosters, I remembered that Chef Linton Hopkins gave a fantastic talk at the Georgia Organics conference a few years ago: he discussed the merits of the “lesser” cuts of beef, such as tongue and heart. He suggested that when cooking these meats, one has to consider what that part of the animal did in life and prepare it using the complementary characteristics. A tongue or a heart is constantly in motion, working ceaselessly chewing cud, ripping out grass, or pumping blood day and night. Thus, these cuts need a lot of long, slow cooking at a low temperature. A tenderloin, on the other hand, is a muscle that is barely used, thus it is soft and needs only the shortest amount of cooking at a very high temperature.
A chicken is no different, only, instead of specific parts, the whole body is what we are concerned with. A young chicken, hen or rooster, has not had the chance to work its muscles for very long, and so, the meat is very tender. This is why most roasting birds are slaughtered at or before 12 weeks of age. Industrially-produced chickens are butchered even sooner (and at a much higher body weight due to inhumane breeding practices and concentrate feeds laced with growth hormone).
An old farm hen or rooster, though, has lived several years: pecking, scratching, fighting, roosting, nesting. Roosters are especially active. They have to service a lot of hens, provide them with protection from other roosters and predators (yes, a rooster can fight off a hawk or a raccoon if inclined), and maintain the social order of the flock through engaging in and breaking-up fights. They are big, muscly, and tough in life, and so they are also in death.
So, how do you cook a cock? Coq au Vin, of course! This dish is quintessential French peasant food. It is designed, through long, slow cooking in wine (which is highly acidic and thereby breaks down muscle tissue) to turn an otherwise inedible rooster into something that is, frankly, succulent. It is a food borne out of the frugality of farm life. While old roosters and hens in our modern food system are sold as dog food, or processed into thin, salty canned soups, or are otherwise lost to the industrial food machine, a small farm or farm hobbyist can access a traditional staple of French cuisine that just isn’t the same when you use a store-bought fryer.
In fact, when researching to find a good recipe to work from for coq au vin, I could not find one that gave instructions for actually using a “coq.” They all called for a regular fryer or pieces of a fryer. As if in lament for the lack of availability of roosters, Lynne Rosetto Kasper titles her recipe for coq au vin, “Coq au Vin Nouveau!” Gentle readers, this is not coq au vin. In fact, it is everything coq au vin is not: it has a short cooking time and relies on modern conveniences such as “canned, low-sodium chicken broth”, “skinless chicken thighs,” and bizarrely, ”white wine.” Nouveau indeed!
I eventually found a recipe over at the Smitten Kitchen based off of the classic Julia Child recipe. It still called for a regular fryer, but the elements were all there: a whole bird, cut into pieces, browned with lardons, stewed in Cognac and good red wine, the sauce finished with a buerre manie, and served with browned mushrooms and caramelized pearl onions.
There, doesn’t that sound better? I thought so.
I was finally able to find a recipe that actually called for a “coq” or “cockerel” in my trusty Larousse Gastronomique, which connected up with what I found at the Smitten Kitchen, only it called for a longer cooking time and to thicken the sauce not only with the buerre maine, but with the cockerel’s's blood as well. I wish I had saved some!
And so, I present to you, the coq au vin that I made with a couple of old roosters in the traditional mode:
A note on ingredients: I used old roosters, but old stew hens will also work well for this. Use a young chicken or hen only if you can’t find old birds. Or better yet, make a different dish suited to a more tender meat!
Please also, do not feel constrained to use the standard button mushrooms for this. I used some fantastic oyster mushrooms from our fellow farmer, Michael over at Indian Ridge Farm, who has the most amazing, large, and beautiful mushrooms I have ever seen. Many recipes call for morels (which are expensive and hard to find), but I say this is one area where you should really play with what is locally and seasonally available: chanterelles, shiitake, hen of the woods, oyster, etc. Just remember, whatever mushrooms you use, fry them in batches with lots of space between them, otherwise they won’t brown.
A heavy, 10-inch, fireproof casserole such as cast iron or enamelware (DO NOT use nonstick), long matches, a fine, mesh strainer, parchment paper
6-ounces bacon, cut into lardons
4 tablespoons butter
2 old roosters, cut into pieces
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup Cognac, Armanac, or strong Brandy
6 cups (about 1.5 bottles) young, full-bodied, French red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, or Cotes du Rhone
2 cups brown chicken stock or beef stock
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cloves mashed garlic
1 teaspoon thyme
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper
For the buerre maine:
6 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons softened butter
1/2 to 1 pound caramelized pearl onions
1 pound sautéed mushrooms (see note above)
In your large, flame-proof casserole, melt butter until it is hot and foaming. Add the lardons and fry slowly until browned and crisp. Set aside the lardons, but leave the hot fat in the pan. Season the rooster pieces with salt and pepper, then gently brown, letting any bits of fat and skin turn golden and slightly crisp on the edges. Pour in the Cognac and carefully light it. When the flames die down, add the wine, tomato paste, garlic, thyme, and bay leaves. Let simmer for a few minutes. Then, cover tightly with a layer of parchment paper and foil or oven-proof lid. Place in a 200 degree oven and braise for 3-4 hours (longer if you have time). After the braise is complete, remove the bits of chicken. They should be falling off the bone. Filter the juices through a fine strainer and refrigerate for a few hours, or overnight.
Meanwhile, make the buerre maine by kneading the flour and soft butter together until you have a homogeneous paste. Set aside.
Remove the layer of fat from the refrigerated sauce and heat. Whisk in your buerre maine until everything has dissolved. Reduce the sauce by about 15% , it should coat the back of a spoon nicely. Adjust seasoning.
Add the chicken back to the sauce. At this point, you can refrigerate your coq au vin for a few days before serving, if you wish.
For the accompanying mushrooms and onions (taken directly from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking):
Oignons Glacés a Brun [Brown-braised Onions]
For 18 to 24 peeled white onions about 1 inch in diameter:
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 tablespoons oil
A 9- to 10-inch enameled skillet
1/2 cup of brown stock, canned beef bouillon, dry white wine, red wine or water
Salt and pepper to taste
A medium herb bouquet: 3 parsley springs, 1/2 bay leaf, and 1/4 teaspoon thyme tied in cheesecloth
When the butter and oil are bubbling the skillet, add the onions and sauté over moderate heat for about 10 minutes, rolling the onions about so they will brown as evenly as possible. Be careful not to break their skins. You cannot expect to brown them uniformly.
Pour in the liquid, season to taste, and add the herb bouquet. Cover and simmer slowly for 40 to 50 minutes until the onions are perfectly tender but retain their shape, and the liquid has evaporated. Remove the herb bouquet. Serve them as they are.
Champignons Sautés Au Buerre [Sautéed Mushrooms]
A 10-inch enameled skillet
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms, washed, well dried, left whole if small, sliced or quartered if large
1 to 2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions (optional)
Salt and pepper
Place the skillet over high heat with the butter and oil. As soon as you see the butter foam has begun to subside, indicating that it is hot enough, add the mushrooms. Toss and shake the pan for 4 to 5 minutes. During their sauté the mushrooms will at first absorb the fat. In 2 to 3 minutes the fat will reappear on their surface, and the mushrooms will begin to brown. As soon as they have browned lightly, remove from heat.
Serve the coq au vin hot, with the mushrooms and onions scattered on top. Buttered egg noodles or boiled potatoes make an excellent and traditional accompaniment, as does a bitter green salad such as arugula, endive, or frissée.
Over the past two days we have been killing chickens. A lot of chickens. As our farmers’ market customers know, we’ve been short on eggs. Really short. This is because our hens were going on three years old. For a hen, that’s old; much too old to be a mama hen anymore (and let’s face it, what wild, ancestral, jungle chicken ever even made it to age 3?) and so, her body stops laying eggs. At this point, the birds are only good for two things: entertainment and the stock pot. Since the entertainment value of a chicken (and they are funny creatures! I often tell my customers that if you have chickens, you don’t need TV!) is somewhat less than its food value and a good deal less than its nutritional value, we rented a plucker and scalder from Darby Farms and went to the messy, messy task of harvesting some 200 birds.
For those folks not well-acquainted with chicken killing, here are the basic steps: kill, scald, pluck, gut, chill, pack. While this summation seems straightforward, slightly more detail renders a more accurate picture:
1. Catch the bird. This is harder than it seems. Have you ever tried to catch a chicken? In some cultures, catching a chicken is considered a right of passage for young boys who wish to become hunters (y’all remember that scene from Roots?). Generally, chicken catching is best done at night (or with a leg snare, but who has the time?), since they become unusually docile and willing. We went out at dark, snatched up the birds in crates, and brought them to a room in the barn for easier bird-napping on the day itself.
2. Place bird, head-first, in cone. Killing cones are the standard, tried-and-true method for killing poultry. They are essentially a cone with a hole in the bottom wide enough for the birds head to come through.
3. Cut veins on sides of neck. Chickens have two veins on either side of their necks that push a large volume of blood pretty quickly. Feathers, however, can make getting there a little difficult. That and figuring out exactly how much force to use based on the thickness of the bird’s skin, the sharpness of the knife, and the strength of your nerve.
4. Wait for the bird to bleed-out and die. You know the phrase, “running around like a chicken with its head cut off”? Well, whether or not you cut off the head, wring the neck, or slit the veins, it doesn’t matter; short of obliterating the poor bird, chickens have a violent nervous system response as they die. Shortly after the loose consciousness, the autonomic nervous system fires up, causing them to convulse, their wings to flap, and if they are on their feet, they can run for a bit. This is highly alarming to the uninitiated, but rest-assured, the bird feels nothing at this point.
5. Place the bird in the scalder. This is essentially a hot water bath, around 140F. The bird goes in for a minute or two, until the water has penetrated the feathers and reached the skin. The heat causes the pores the feathers grow out of to dilate, loosening the feathers. Ever smelled a wet, dead chicken? It’s not far off from a wet dead rat.
6. Place the bird in the plucker. This is perhaps the most grisly part of the process. A plucker is a tub lined with rubber “fingers” that rotates the carcass. As the carcass makes contact with the rubber fingers, the feathers are pulled out. It is an odd bit of physics I don’t fully understand, but it works. But it is slightly horrifying to see the body of a bird slowly shifts from something solid and defined into this naked thing, flopping about lifelessly and erratically. The plucker is this liminal space where the bird transforms from a chicken into meat. It is an eerie thing to behold.
7. Remove the head a feet. Use a big knife, find a joint, and whack. It makes you feel like a butcher. Or an axe murderer. But you know, in a macabre-humor sort of sense.
8. Gut. This is the most “involved” part of the process. If you’ve never gutted a chicken, you should. Essentially, you make an incision at the belly, just under the breastbone, pull the cavity open a bit, reach way in to find the esophagus, and gently but firmly pull out, bringing most everything else with you as you go. It is very important to be gentle with the intestines and to cut the “vent” or cloaca out carefully to prevent poo from landing on the meat (not for nothing is it called a cloaca– latin for “sewer,” so know where your blade is going!). You can also imagine why gutting might be the best job if you’re butchering on a cold day.
It was suggested while we were working that instead of dissecting frogs in high school (a fairly pointless killing of an animal), students should gut chickens (I know, I can see the angry letters from parents now… but go with me here) and then eat them. If you’re interested in what’s inside a chicken, I highly recommend taking a look at this chapter on chicken anatomy from the University of Kentucky’s Ag Extension. It is as beautiful as it is fascinating.
9. Chill. Well, actually you rinse first, with a bit of cold water, inside and out to remove any excess blood and guts. Then chill the bird down in an ice bath to maintain freshness and facilitate freezing.
10. Pack. Take the bird out of the ice bath, shake off excess moisture, and put it in a thick, plastic bag (or vacuum sealer) and seal. This is where tool selection is vital. We thought we had the correct sealer for our bags, but they were too thick and would not go through the mechanism. So we taped each bag. By hand. Enjoy your “artisan” packaging!
Now, some of this sounds brutal, but the reality is that it is no more brutal than it has to be and a good deal less brutal for the chicken than a natural death might be. I’ve written here before about the ethics of killing animals for food, and my experiences have upheld my beliefs and understandings about this process over time: the cones, while seemingly unnatural actually calm the chickens rather well, while the cutting (if done with a sharp knife) is not very painful, and bleeding out is perhaps one of the most serene ways to to die. It is also an economic necessity for us farmers. When the birds are young, they eat a lot of feed, but don’t lay any eggs. They basically live on the farm rent free for the first 4-5 months of their lives. At the end of their lives, we recoup that cost by selling the meat.
An wow, what meat it is! These birds are not your plump little roasters that you can put a lemon and a bay leaf in. No. They are scrawny, tough, taste strongly of chicken, and have great hunks of the yellowest, purest fat you can imagine: pure, distilled sunshine and grass. These birds are meant to be stewed. To be transformed from a boney carcass into the richest, most flavorful, most nutrient-dense broth you’ve ever had in. your. life. Seriously. This is the stuff of your grandmother’s kitchen. I’ve been known to drink it with a straw. Here’s why.
So all you egg-buyers out there! While you’re waiting for our new crop of chickens to start laying in the spring, enjoy the hens who have been feeding you these past years in a different way! Come grab your stew hen at the Peacthree Rd Farmers’ Market this Saturday until we sell out…
Many Fold Farm is looking for the right person to join our team! We are looking for two interns to assist in our 2013 lambing season. We are expecting to see over 150 births in our sheep flock and we need help observing the ewes for signs of labor, basic veterinary care, care of postpartum ewes, and tending lambs. This is a perfect opportunity for someone looking to gain significant, hard-to-find experience with raising small ruminants. Applicants should be available from January 15th until March 1st and must be willing to observe the flock overnight when necessary. The schedule is very flexible. Housing, food, and a stipend can be provided. Please contact Rebecca for more information:firstname.lastname@example.org, or 770-463-0677
Many Fold Farm is looking for the right person to join our team! We have an opening for a full-time position as assistant cheese maker for the 2013 milking season. This is a paid position that begins around January 15 and ends around September 15 with the possibility of continuing on into 2014.
We will be reviewing resumes and conducting interviews October-November 2012.
No cheese making experience required, but a willingness to learn, strong interest in cheese, an ability to pay close attention to detail, and a consistent demeanor of professionalism and kindness are required. Some professional culinary experience is preferred, but not required.
Those who cannot commit to long hours and hard, detail-oriented work need not apply.
We’ve had quite a lot of questions at farmers’ market the past few weeks about how to cook and eat lamb. So, I thought I’d shed a little light on this insanely delicious meat for folks. I am unsurprised by the questions we get about lamb preparation. Lamb is not commonly eaten in the US (less than 1% of the total meat consumed per person, per year) and is even less commonly eaten in the South (where pork and chicken rule the day). Folks are curious about it, and certainly enjoy it (who doesn’t love a lamb lolipop?!), but it is not a traditional part of our Southern foodways. Most of us didn’t grow up eating it, and even fewer grew up cooking it.
In other parts of the world, it is a very different story. The most notable lamb consumers are the New Zealanders, who consume some 57 pounds of lamb per person, per year. There is not a child in that country who does not know how to prepare a lamb chop! Countries with a large Muslim population also tend to eat proportionally more lamb per person, per year. Indeed, the British Isles, Australia and New Zealand, and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern countries have had lamb as a centerpiece of their diets for centuries. As such, most recipes for lamb fall into two categories: 1) European flavors, such as rosemary, mint, sage, and other herbs, and 2) Mediterranean flavors, such as cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and other spices.
Nutritionally, lamb is an outstanding source of nutrient-rich protein . It is also an excellent source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and is loaded with vitamins and trace minerals (especially when it is grass-fed). Lamb is also a very flavorful meat. It tastes completely different from beef. Beef tends to be a very pure, umami taste, without strong or distinct flavors. Beef also derives most of its flavor from its fat content. This is why a lean steak is often not very tasty. Lamb, however, does not tend to marble, making it very lean, but still extremely flavorful. The meat itself picks up the flavors of the place where it was raised and feedstuffs it ate. According to one article, “Because Australian and New Zealand lamb is grazed on grass, it has a more pronounced flavor than most commercial American lamb, which is usually weaned to grain, then hay, and finally fed a formulated feed of sorghum, wheat, and vitamins.” This, in part, is why many Americans find the taste of lamb unappealing. Very little lamb in the US is domestically produced; the vast majority of it comes from Australia and New Zealand. Generally, our American palates tend to prefer mild flavors: mild cheeses, white bread, white meat poultry, corn-fed meats. It’s what we were raised on and accustomed to. So, if you’re at a restaurant and order the lamb, whether or not you are going to enjoy it often depends on where it came from and if you prefer stronger or milder flavors. It also depends a great deal on the preparation. A good chef will be able to work with the intrinsic flavors of the meat to generate a dish that appeals to his or her clientele.
Our lamb at Many Fold Farm is closer in flavor to the lamb grown in New Zealand. The animals get grass and hay and that’s it. The meat picks up plenty of the local flavors grass-fed meats tend to have, but it is also retains a mildness that most of our customers find appealing. The reason for the mild flavor is that we slaughter our lambs very young, typically around 6 months of age, sometimes younger. The meat from young animals is extremely tender and much more mild than older animals. But because our lambs are grass-fed, they still retain a unique flavor profile that we love. At farmers’ markets we also get a lot of questions about specific cuts and their preparation. A whole lamb can be cut an number of different ways. Most commonly, a lamb will yield four shanks, 8-10 chops, 2 racks, 2 shoulders, 2 legs, and a bit of ground and stew meat. There are many other cuts too: leg steaks, neck chops, tenderloin, ribs, belly, just to name a few. There is an excellent app for the iphone/ipad/etc. called Pat LaFrieda’s Big App for Meat. It provides a really great introduction to the various cuts of pretty much any kind of meat out there, lamb included. A quick google search landed me at Meals For You Guide to Meat Cuts that has great, basic information. Here is a standard chart of lamb cuts and their primals: There are two general guidelines for cooking lamb. The first is that less is more. Lamb is best served rare to medium-rare (unless you are talking about ground, shank, or stew meat). The second is that lamb greatly benefits from a marinade. Either overnight or for a few hours, allowing some olive oil, lemon juice, and herbs and spices to infuse the meat beforehand is always recommended. Lamb does a wonderful job taking up the flavors of a marinade and the acids tend to break it down and further tenderize it.
As I mentioned above, seasoning can go one of two ways: European-style with savory herbs, or Mediterranean/ Middle-eastern, heavily spiced. I love both ways, depending on my mood and the weather. In the wintertime, I like the rich, warming, savoriness of European flavors, while in the summertime, I prefer the hot-on-hot zip of the Middle East. As for cooking methods, this depends on the cut. As a rule, legs and shoulders are best served slow-roasted to medium-rare. I prefer these cuts bone-in because I love the flavor the bone imparts in a roast. However, you can get them bone-out and roll the meat up with herbs and spices to roast, which is delightful. The cuts that come from the tenderloin: chops, rack, etc. are best grilled, seared, or seared and then very lightly roasted (this is often how a lamb lolipop is made). Shanks can be well-done, and are perfection in a braise, as are neck chops and the belly. Ground lamb is extremely versatile. You can make it into burgers, meatballs, kibbeh, Bolognese or ragout, moussaka, shepherd’s pie… the list goes on and on. Stew is also highly versitile: kebabs, stews, braises…
Here are some excllent online resources for lamb recipies:
And these are my favorite cookbooks with outstanding lamb recipes:
A word about mutton: Mutton is the meat from a sheep that is more than 12 months old. It is typically much stronger than lamb, and not nearly as tender. It is best cooked long and slow and heavily spiced, and as such it is very common in Indian cooking. It is wonderful!
Well, I’ve been sick for the past week. Flat-out-bed-rest-can’t-move-drugged-up sick. It’s the complete opposite of what my life has been like since we started making cheese. I’ve gone from day-in-day-out 10–12 hour days, juggling everywhich thing to a full, solid week of being unable to do anything at all. Full stop. The upshot is that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking in my convalescence. The seasons have started to shift, which is our usual cue to begin a more reflective, less active time of year. I’ve been cooking up projects and hammering out ideas for how things can move more smoothly next season.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the grass. I recently found myself saying to someone that the grass is the indicator for all other aspects of the health of the farm. I believe this to be true. Our grass needs to be better. We have some spots where the sward is thin, where weeds are too many. Drought didn’t help us. We ran out of grass just as the drought and high temperatures peaked in July, which was a bit of a shock after two years of not being able to keep up with the grass! Worms were terrible, a sign that the grass was poor this year—too short, not enough nutrition—we found ourselves grateful that we were able to supplement the ewes with hay and feed in the parlor. The ram lambs grew terribly and succumbed to worms constantly, despite our vigilant deworming program. It was as if the moment the dewormer left their system, the worms blossomed and the poor animals had nothing to fight back with. All these problems point back to the grass. Good grass means good nutrition, which means the animals can fight worm infections much, much better. Good grass means taller grass, since the worms can’t climb the stem if it is longer than 8 inches. Good grass means high organic matter, which means better drought tolerance. But why did we not have these things? Listening to the Joel Salatins and Dennis Stoltzfooses of the world converted me to the gospel of grass: grass solves all feed problems on the farm. Rotational grazing is the paramount solution! And it is. But what I’m begining to see is that for the grass farming to do all its cracked-up to do, you have to get there first.
I had a bitter moment this summer when we ran out of grass and I had so many animals struggling. As I wrote the check for the hay I had to buy to keep my animals alive, I couldn’t help but feel that I had been sold a bill of goods by the grassfarming movement. Why wasn’t this working? We rotate daily using a moderate stocking density, we use chickens in our rotation… what was going on? Yes, we started grazing a bit early this Spring and should have waited until the sward had really taken hold. Maybe we could use a new fencing regimin to graze faster and at a higher destiny. But there was something else bothering me.
The answer came to me as I walked up and down the fields, looking down at the dry July grass, treading over the rise and fall of the terraces, formed to grow cotton, the last bush of which was still growing here less than 100 years ago. With a great wave of sadness, it occurred to me “that’s where the fertility is.” Gone to make cloth. Every last bit of it exported from the spot where I was standing lost in the great chain of commerce. I wanted to cry out at my forebears, “How dare you! How dare you leave me in this situation! Do you not know how hard it is to farm? How dare you make it even harder on those who are here now!” To understand my outrage, one first has to understand something about fertility.
Fertility is an abstract concept, but is firmly grounded in biological reality. In biology, the ability to reproduce is the pinnacle of life: if a life form has enough to not only continue on living itself, but to thrive, it can reproduce. This is, in a nutshell, fertility. Literally it means “to bear,” as in to hold or carry. It is the ability of a living thing to carry on life: the carrying capacity for life. If there is not enough of the stuff a life form needs to go on living, then it dies or fails to reproduce. This is the absence of fertility. The fertility of a piece of land is related directly to the quantity of life it can bear. The quantity of life the land can sustain without input is directly related to the quantity of organic matter, that is poop (and other decaying things). Decay is the primary attractor for life. Microbes, bacteria, and fungi love organic matter and are essential to the propagation of plants growing in it. Microbes create and release nutrients in the soil so that plants can access them. Enough organic matter, especially if it is held together with lots of roots, and the soil acts as a sponge, holding in water. Not enough organic matter and you have hardpan: water trickles off the soil; roots can’t take hold in it. Fertility can be directly measured by the quantity of organic matter in soil.
Getting fertility is a bit of a problem, because if you have more fertility, it’s easier to get more. If you don’t have much, it’s hard to get. Think of it like an endowment at a school or big institution. The more money in the endowment, the more money the endowment can generate to create useful programs and provide scholarships. Then, more people are positively affected by the institution to give donations and grow the endowment. If a school has a small endowment, it is very hard to operate: hard to give scholarships, hard to attract the best teachers, and hard to ask people for more money. A school with a large endowment has a lot of fiscal fertility: it has more, so it can make and do more.
Here is the most important feature of an endowment: the school never spends the endowment itself, only the interest it throws off. Fertility in the land is no different. The land can be like a huge bank, holding fertility within it. If you have enough fertility, the land will throw off a kind of “interest” in the form of enough nutrition and water to support more life than what is needed in that specific place. This is the opportunity human beings seized upon with the advent of agriculture: the ability of a fertile piece of land to support more than could live on that one spot. We realized that we can work with nature to provide an endowment that better ensures our survival. But like its financial counterpart, fertility has to be properly managed if it is to remain effective. And so the words of Wendell Berry flooded my mind as I looked at the rolling terraces, seeing cotton where grass is now, harvested and exported, harvested and exported, fertility never to return:
Invest in the millennium.
Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion–put your ear close,
and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.
These words suggest the antidote to the spendthrift farming we have practiced now for generations. Most farms operate on a minimum of fertility. Grass is very poor because the fertility has been extracted by generations previous, so fertilizers are brought in along with hay or other feedstuffs to keep the animals alive. Most farms don’t rotate, so whatever organic matter the stock leaves behind does not have time to set in before the cow, sheep, or goat comes back to take out more. Then the animal is sold off, typically to a feedlot where it is fed more fertility from elsewhere, then sold off again as meat to faraway places. It’s as if one deposited money in an investment, but then kept coming back to take more money out before the investment matures.
No one in their right mind would expect good growth with such behavior. It’s divestment in place of investment. It’s bad business. The notion that what you can take out is directly related to what you put in is rendered irrelevant. Basic economics be damned to the false values of endless consumption. Farms have become pass-throughs for fertility, like some security exchanged and traded on Wall Street (which, by the by, is not for nothing called the stock market!). Instead they ought to be a place where fertility can be deposited and held and allowed to accumulate. I understand now why I have had to buy hay, why the grass is poor in places, and why my animals suffer from disease. I understand that I have to mitigate and provide crutches when trying to use a system that relies on fertility I don’t have as much as it replenishes it. Because of what my forbears took away, I have to add inputs in order to get it back. I have to put in some of what they took out if I am to expect any kind of return on my investment in this land and in these animals. It’s not something I fully accounted for emotionally, financially, or otherwise. But that said, it is my goal and the goal of our farm to leave the land better than when we got it.