Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Farm Bureau

The meeting of the Nevada County Farm Bureau—which gathers monthly in the Ponderosa Pine building at our county’s fairgrounds—proved a far more lively and heated event than the six empty white-plastic chairs reserved for guests initially suggested.

At one minute to seven, the bureau’s president—the affable, though imposing and firm hand-shaking, Mr. Sandy Ballou—promptly called the meeting to order, complete with a standing Pledge of Allegiance. I was joined at first in the audience by a Miss Catherine Renner and Miss Julie Yoder, two ten-year-olds who had won an “Ag in the Classroom” competition based on a short, themed essay and who had come (under the eager gazes of Miss Renner’s mother, father, grandparents, and slightly distracted younger brother) to read aloud their submissions to the bureau’s board. The delivery of these page-and-a-half long essays was unusually good: Miss Renner waxed eloquently about the “cattleman” who lived across the street from her parents’ “ranchette” and how, as a younger child, she had been appreciative of his efforts to teach her how to raise “beef” in her parents’ front yard. Miss Yoder retold the lively story of the local pumpkin patch at which she shops for Jack-o-lanterns every October (the second page of which, most impressively, included a paragraph-long list of obscure varieties of squashes and pumpkins she had come to know well). After the much-deserved applause, and Mr. Ballou’s appropriately encouraging words, and the obligatory photographs taken together flanked by the hanging, American flag, Miss Renner, Miss Yoder, and accompanying family members politely and quietly excused themselves—leaving me alone in the white chairs—and the board turned to the approval of last month’s minutes.

Next came the reports; the news on sheep, beef, bees, and ranchers’ use of public lands is decidedly bad: in case we needed reminding, our nation’s agriculture is waning. The country’s sheep numbers are in precipitous decline; the industry’s infrastructure is abandoned, neglected, or antiquated; and there’s only one slaughterhouse left that processes lamb west of the Rockies. Beef numbers are troublingly low too and the number of head being brought to market are a million short of demand; as a rancher, prices fetched to send your immature steer to a feedlot are accordingly (and unfortunately, enticingly) high and are already encouraging unhealthy and greedy practices. American bees are threatened by international disease and cross-border competition: due to NAFTA, it’s more cost effective to truck hives north from Mexico to the almond fields of California than it is to bring them in from Florida, Michigan, and Maine, as they always have; commercial hive numbers across the country are declining then, especially with the competition of low-grade, cheap honey shipped in from China; at least, reported a Mr. McClaugherty, there has been a boom of interest in home-scale beekeeping. A wiry fellow with a regal, ten-gallon cowboy hat who sits on the bureau’s board described the ranchers’ ongoing frustrations with the unilateral regulations of the government, which for years have slowly eroded historical grazing rights in national forests: the ranchers have decided that the government ought finally to begin attending these annual “bitch sessions,” as the wiry fellow describes them—incredible to think all these years the ranchers’ complaining has fallen on deaf governmental ears.

As a small farmer in Nevada County, I sat, struggling to reconcile my work with this scale of agricultural phenomena. As I tug each morning on my chicken tractors, or lug the brooding chicks their daily water in five-gallon buckets, or curse the electric netting and my day when the net’s white, wiry strands get stuck in blackberry brambles and need undoing, or spend hours over weeks trying to obtain approval from the county for a lousy ag pole so that our nine-acre property can have basic power, how can I appreciate what a million cattle sound like, or look like across a horizon, or cost, or mean? News from the Farm Bureau of the state of national agriculture is like listening to the war report over the radio: hundreds of lives lost mean nothing until you arrive at the corner store and your bread, or the glue, or the gallon of milk has been rationed.

Perhaps this explains why the evening’s most heated exchange concerned the wild animal trappers’ request for a new fifty-dollar piece of machinery. Gentlemen who sat silent all meeting around circularly-arranged folding tables suddenly felt passionately that it was no business of this Farm Bureau to provide funding to a government organization (the trappers run out of the USDA) that refuses to provide for and take care of the needs of their own employees. So and so knew so and so in Placer County who assures so and so that it is downright illegal for a government organization to accept donations from private groups. Over there in the corner, one thought the bureau should up and buy the winch for the trappers and not just submit the fifty dollar check. Him, over there, he was sure the check would do just fine. In the end, with some audibly disgruntled “yays,” a surprisingly generous motion was made, seconded, and passed that allotted the overworked trappers sixty dollars to go towards the purchase price of a winch for their truck (pending the establishment of the legality of just such a gift), so that they’d no longer need to lift the five-hundred-pound wild boars they shoot on folk’s suburban lawns into the bed of their truck by hand.

After this tempest in a teapot over a winch, I was sure then that they’d take up with great enthusiasm Mr. Brad Fowler’s “Food Freedom Act” agenda item. A community in faraway Maine has taken the bold and unprecedented first step toward ridding themselves of government interference in their food; they have recently drafted an ordinance that denies and voids all federal and state regulation of food products (think meat, dairy, value-added products, etc.) when the sale occurs directly and simply between producer and final consumer. Much of my reason for attending the Farm Bureau meeting, admittedly, was to hear Mr. Fowler address the board concerning these goings-on in Sedgwick, Maine. But, the very same folk who’d been so lively in the winch debate sat quietly by as Mr. Fowler gave an impassioned argument for why we should, here in Nevada County, take up a similar, food-freeing fight. The room sort of politely listened, nodded, shrugged, and agreed that it should be included in next month’s agenda, again, under the section for “Old Business.” I tried hard not to display my disappointment with their reaction. I suppose this agenda item too is like the war on the radio that no one knows how to care about. The winch is so much more the rationed bread.

I am inspired as a young farmer in the county to reconnect with these older, agricultural institutions—like the Farm Bureau—institutions that were once terribly topical, and vibrant, and powerful in every rural community, and ought to be again. It felt meaningful to be amongst these fellow agricultural folks for an evening; besides, I think they like the youth sitting in the audience, and I enjoy being made to feel a little bit more like a real, proper farmer. Mr. Ballou adjourned the meeting at 8:56; Mr. Fowler assured me before we began that they always made an effort to be finished by nine.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

“The Only Thing I Ran Out Of Was Daylight”

A brief walk in the pasture this evening suggested our obsession with calendars is wholly unfounded: Spring had finally sprung, having done so—if one were still inclined to lend credence to the temporal experts—twenty-seven days late. Five o’clock brought a warm, pregnant, sweater-less sort of rain, the kind where drops plop fully off the brim of your field hat, to rest upon and stain your tee-shirt dark again the color it was once: in my instance, a royal purple. The fresh buds of the hawthorne and willow appeared neon against the rolling, gathering grey. Earlier, when there was still sun, in the silence between whacks of the hammer on the roofing of the barn, we’d all have said the grass was nearly audible, growing. The saffron-breasted robins swooped; Betty Jean appeared pleased returned to her perch over the dirt patch, despite the rain; the lambs slightly disagreeable over the amount of fresh grass granted them. The mugginess surrounded.

It is difficult each of these evenings anticipating my mood. There is such ecstasy laden in the tasks I accomplish in the day, if only I can see it—lessons and revelations and satisfactions—and yet anxiety and nervousness too often ultimately trump. I’ve awoken five of the last six mornings convinced the grass just simply will not grow, and—most futilely—no matter how much I toss and turn, it will, or will not.

Unexpectedly, however, I felt clear and present and content this evening, walking about the pasture. Our Sunday brought no day of rest but instead one of hurried, barn labor. The hurry, however, was for good measure, for today was a great instant of transformation. There are those moments in any worthwhile project where, when compared to the amount of labor, one makes disproportionately vast visual progress. It is as if the previous hours of seemingly fruitless work are saved up, as on account, and withdrawn all at once with a few good strokes of the hammer or masterful arrangement of rafter. I cannot claim though that it was my stored labor that exploded forth this afternoon, instead that of a few good builders, each with worn, leather tool belt, steady framing hammer, and splintered hands; mine, these barn days, has been more of an auxiliary role, to ensure that there are nails enough or that seventy-eight and five-eighths really is the measurement. Standing underneath the sixteen locus posts that push mightily out of the ground, I believe one easily feels the tremendous love that has been poured into this building by, at this point, nearly three dozen pairs of hands. I fear that with all they’ve given, the nail-pullers and soup-stewers and gravel-pounders and tractor-drivers and wood-deliverers and design-drawers and rafter-hangers and ladder-climbers will not feel all the deep gratitude I have for their assistance and that is due them. Perhaps the barn alone, as monument, will say what needs be said.

As a dramatic and fitting end, we six raced this afternoon against the gathering rain, flinging and screwing down metal sheeting for our roof. It felt a bit like running about with stew pots catching the drip from leaky roofs, but in a much more substantial and, in the end, permanent way. There are still two or three more sheets of plywood to nail down, three hundred and sixty square feet of metal roofing to screw, some assorted nuts and bolts to tighten, but in the meantime—now that there is a roof—chickens arriving Thursday to brood, hay to store, a work bench to build, animal stalls to raise: ah! the blessings of shelter.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Springtime Cometh

For the three previous weeks we had attempted unsuccessfully to find a Thursday dry and warm enough to take the trailer over Donner Pass to Reno, but last Thursday, against the advice of meteorologists who threatened through television afternoon storms, Leo and I unheedingly met at a quarter past five in the morning dark of Bluebird Farm. The frustrations of the three foiled weeks before had lent an unfortunate gravity and dangerous expectation to every move we needed to make: the pickup backing-up through mud and the connecting of trailer to inch-and-seven-eighths ball hitch; the coaxing of fattened pigs, already made suspicious by the disrepair of their pen, into dark, presumably menacing, said trailer; the pulling away from farm in unfamiliar, borrowed truck; and the safe journeying forth on a morning un-softened by coffee.

As animal farmers, we had not yet experimented with the process of bringing our animals to the USDA-certified slaughterhouse and butcher that the University of Nevada Reno operates as a teaching facility, opting always instead to perform our own, on-farm slaughters. There is admittedly something odd in the act of driving these domestic beasts we’ve cared for so carefully and lovingly over the course of six months one hundred miles: to watch them saunter out of the trailer, through panel after panel after gate, finally out of our gaze and then, remotely and not by our hand, into our freezers. At least slaughtering on-farm makes us feel whole by completing the relationship ourselves, ending their lives and sustaining our own in the home to which they’d grown accustomed. If our concern, however, is wholeness, perhaps we’ve failed from the beginning, since we buy our pigs as weaners—around forty pounds—and have nothing to say of and no hand in their birth, or their early upbringing, or the manner by which they are taken from their mama. Needless to say, after the discomfort we and the trip to Reno had recently inflicted on these, our reared ‘market pigs,’ they had no fond farewells for us, or looks backward in longing, though we might have liked them and given them in return.

After a monstrously large breakfast of corned-beef hash and eggs—the sort one only finds in casino-towns—and three cups of weak, soul-affirming coffee, I fell in love. Love this time was a windswept plain, and government-issued steel corrals, and hardened Nevadan wranglers, and my Jenny. I expected that in exchange for being whisked away from the anonymity of the Bureau of Land Management’s Palomino Valley Wild Horse and Burro Adoption Center that Ol’ Jenny (as she was temporarily known for the day), who stood at five feet tall and weighed over half a ton, would promise me protection for my flocks. I didn’t bargain, however, to be bargaining with such a wild creature. And though I was immediately smitten by the look of her and the idea of a donkey, there was a very brief but very real moment in which my will nearly caved. I am no equestrian and her stubbornness and her wild kicks that reverberated off the heavy metal siding of the loading chute scared me. I turned to Leo for some sort of support, some affirmation that what we were doing was right, and manageable, but he appeared and readily admitted to feeling just as windswept and scared as I. I stopped the wrangler and muttered some fumblings of reluctance, and, instead of offering the emotional support I was craving, he unforgivingly caught my gaze, electric cattle-prod in hand, and asked, “Well, should I load her or not?” And in a moment of rare clarity of mind—the sort Leo and I later decided defined one’s life—I responded, without thought, “Yup.” So Betty Jean (her new name; a tribute to Paul Simon and his something about a bodyguard, since she will be mine, or rather the sheep’s; "Jean," for flourish) has made it to her home in Nevada City. Despite my bursting affection, she won’t let me get anywhere near her, though the carrots I offer seem to bring me a few steps closer every day. I simply ask that she’ll let me put a bridle on her by the time the sheep arrive next week.

The murmurings of Spring can be no more clearly heard than in the mounting load of work. Now that the rains have set in after the snows and daily persist in their inconvenience and in their wetness, undone work piles upon undoable work. None of the new season’s farm animals have yet arrived, save Betty Jean, though six pigs are expected Friday, one hundred fifty day-old chicks the following Wednesday, and twenty-something sheep and feeder lambs by the end of that same week. Of course, none of the necessary preparations have been made for them, but will need to be done, whether or not this rain keeps falling. There is a barn to raise in ten days, the materials of which have only been half-gathered, electricity from PG&E to connect to, irrigation to sort out, and a trailer to be moved into by the end of the month. In the few farming years gone past, I’ve made the habit of memorizing poems about Spring. All these poets do well capturing the unfolding drama in heavy clouds or the glint of revelatory sunshine upon field but none whosoever seem even to acknowledge the work this then means for us. Robert Frost is especially guilty of this. Might he please take a break from walking through his ghost-white, blossoming orchards, turn his head from the holy, darting birds, and lend us a hand erecting our much-needed pole barn?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Storm

Talk of the storm began early last week. Like in any small town, the weather report seems to leak in from all sides. There are murmurings at the cafe of the gathering grey; then, a day later, the more bold make dire predictions, announce absurdly low altitudinal snow levels (like white in San Franciso); but then, the next day, others—in silent retort—will swear the whole thing off, and insist the weather will veer off north, or peter out on the coast, or only bring rain.

Thursday brought cold; the kind where even the normally indestructible Leo was found sitting by the wood stove at the construction site, explaining that it hurt his hands to work in the un-insulated bathroom next door. I had arranged weeks before—before these murmurings of storm—to drive the winter pigs to Reno that day, to a USDA slaughter and butcher, but had had to cancel early that morning for fear that the snow that was promised on Donner Pass, some seven thousand feet, would be dangerously un-passable in a trailer. Hoping to accomplish some task, I scheduled an oil and lube for the afternoon.

I sat and drank a coffee as I waited for my truck and after half an hour looked up out of my page to see a blanket of white. Suddenly, folks at the restaurant were taking orders to go they’d originally sent in to stay. Others piled up against the windows. Others still, ominously assured us we’d have time before it stuck on the roads. I closed my book and paid my check, anxiously hoping they’d have finished with my truck.

I made it home alright, but that was about all I did for the remainder of the day. By dinner there were six inches. By ten the power was out. By morning there was knee-deep, howling, impenetrable snow. As I spent most of that next day huddled in front of my propane oven—door open, four-hundred degrees—with a head-lamp to read in the dark trailer and dirty dishes piling up (powerlessness on this property means that the electric space heater obviously does not flip on and that the water, whose pressure is generated from a pump, runs dry from the faucets) I got to feeling grateful I hadn’t procured yet any of my spring animals. I feel confident imagining that trying to pasture in twenty inches of snow would be unpleasant both for the farmer and for his sheep.

Tim has asked me a handful of times over the Winter if I’d yet thought of a name for the new farm—the farm we’ve hereto called Rocker, out of uncreative simplicity. I have finally now begun to think of one in earnest: “Locust Springs Farm.” There was Black Locust Farm, Locust Meadow Farm, Locust Meadow Ranch, Honey Locust Farm, Red Rock Farm, etc.; but now, Locust Springs. “Locust,” because that is the tree our farm is built on—a veritable Gibraltar—harvested from the hills of Nevada City and used in our fence and our future pole-barn. “Springs,” to acknowledge the land’s distinctive wetness—the creeks, ponds, and runoffs that have come flowing—seemingly overnight—from the farm’s northern hill after all these rains and snow. Folks have commented that the name sounds rather bleak. I, perhaps stubbornly, with a mind of a tree-harvester, contend the name reminds me less of Moses and his plagues than it does of the gorgeous black-wooded posts that line our wet, Spring fields.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In The Beginning

I suppose the most difficult part is in knowing how to begin: a report and a farm.

Serious discussions between the property owner, Richard Ellers, and Living Lands Agrarian Network concerning the meadow off Red Dog Road began sometime in late August. There was to be much inchoate dialogue and many rambling walks through the parcel in the weeks that followed. The property was truly raw: to even have a look-around one had to park his truck in a wide spot of Rocker Road, which ran along the parcel’s western edge, pull back a thick layer of pine boughs on the roadside and wind through thick, downed logs and a damp gully before he would emerge upon the meadow. There was no access by road, no usable fence, no structures, electricity, or water. By late October, however, some concrete plans had been laid to bring a road into the property from the northeastern edge off Red Dog Road.

Work commenced the first week in November. There, as Autumn approached, we dawned hedge trimmers and weed-whackers and chainsaws to rip and slash and saw our way through thirty feet of a willow thicket to push our road through. Fencing supplies—some three thousand dollars worth—were ordered and delivery was arranged. Immediately, however, the going was slow. Rain and scheduling conflicts delayed our tractor and our gravel, and the Thanksgiving holidays promised to make none of us feel much like working, with our full bellies and holiday spirit.

Road-building is a job for heavy tractors and fifteen-ton trucks. Most afternoons I stood aside, observing, waiting for the moment human hands might become useful. Truckload after truckload of rock came from the quarry and slowly the tractor scraped it across the edge of our pasture, carving out a road. First, the trucks brought large, four-inch rock; this was the preliminary layer intended to lodge and hold in the grass and soil. Next came two-inch rock, which was spread over this base of larger rock to lock and give us a drivable surface. None of us, not even our road-builder, had any appreciation for how soggy the ground was: the muddy brown seemed to eat each successive truckload of rock: tons were poured and yet the road developed no firmness. This bottomless wet was adding to our cost and our schedule. Finally, after one hundred and thirty-five tons of rock were laid, we had the skeleton of a sturdy road, which stretched four hundred feet from the roadside down into the glade where we planned to build our pole-barn.

Accordingly, the road that promised to be done in a week wasn’t completed until early February; by early December, however, as the tractors rolled and scraped on, we felt compelled to turn our attentions to the fence. Under grey, looming skies, strapped now with metal-bladed weed-whacker, loppers, chainsaws, and Muck boots, we began to push our way around the perimeter of our envisioned fence. (In what will become an ongoing theme) This clearing that was needed to open a swathe for the fence that promised to take a day, took ten. I had promised my family I would return to southern California by December sixteenth, and so suddenly, we all felt the burden of time.

The fence is of a rather simple construction—difficult perhaps to explain in prose. To begin, fence lines are imagined and for every corner, direction-change, or gate, a series of wood posts are set. In a corner, for example, one post is set on the corner mark. One post is then set on either side of the corner post, some four feet away, creating a ninety-degree angle. Two horizontal posts, four feet high, then connect the corner post with each of the two structural posts, creating two visual “H”s. Wire, and in our case, salvaged barbwire, is then diagonally attached around each “H-brace”: two pieces of wire are attached at the bottom of the corner post and the wire is angled diagonally upwards toward the top of the two structural posts that are four feet away. The wire is then twisted, and with each twist, made more taught. The wired “H-brace” is intended for structural support, to transfer tension when the fence is finally strung. All of this, of course, is more easily said than done. For each wood post a two and a half foot hole with a diameter slightly larger than your post must be dug using the aptly named “post-hole digger.” We eventually dug fifty holes for fifty posts, some through soft, moist soil, but the majority through massive tree roots, rocks, swamps, and clay. After the hole had been dug, the post is lowered in and gravel is slowly poured around. Going three-inch layer by three-inch layer, we pounded down a heavy metal bar to pack the gravel, securing the post in place. The gravel provided strength for our posts but also created a region through which moisture would drain, thus theoretically prolonging the wood’s longevity. Most folks use pressure-treated pine rounds for their posts; in a bout of thrift, we said we’d use locust and cedar we could scavenge (of course committing to this plan without fully appreciating we would need fifty). But sure enough, on high, Nevada-City hills and through low, Highway-49 creek gullies, we found our locust—honey and black—ranging from four to ten inches in diameter. To our forty or so we scavenged, we added ten purchased cedar posts a friend had logged on his property some thirty minutes further up Red Dog. After posts were set and H-braces wired, there was of course the most satisfying part of fence building: the stringing. Nailed to a corner post of choice, we worked our way around the perimeter from corner to corner, pulling the fence taught as we went, nailing it to each successive wood post. The fence’s tightness came from a “come-along,” a nifty, simple little tool that acts something like a ratchet, holding the fence in position as you manually advance the spoke forward. And lastly, the t-post clipping. Between every wood post, some of which are hundreds of feet apart, is a line of thin, metal t-posts that give the fence some vertical form. The clipping is simple, bending a thick, pre-fabricated metal wire around t-post and fence.Although it had been our intention to have the road and fence completed by Christmas, we needed to find contentment and patience in what our bodies and the weather and time would allow us to complete. On the evening of the fifteenth of December, the day before I left, a handful of us worked well into dark, utterly fatigued. There was a moment around four o’clock that afternoon, as the sun bent into the horizon and we had reached a good stopping point, that I was ready to give up. I looked at Tim and undoubtedly he knew; instead, he suggested blankly we push on, and I agreed, for him having suggested so, there seemed no other choice. By dark we had the most noticeable northern stretch of fence along Red Dog Road nailed off, which at least made it look like we were finished.

In the end, the winter holidays came: there were two large piles of rock blocking the top of our driveway, sitting there, waiting to be spread, to complete the road, and we had managed to string eighty percent of the fence.