Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Fall journey

Buttons the cat is gone. Again. She left for her annual through-hike on the Ozark Trail. She goes this time every year. She never lets us know she's leaving, but one day, I'm milking in the barn and the familiar presence is gone. No one jumps in my lap while I'm sitting on the milking stool and kneads my bare legs. After a few days, I realize she's left. I miss her.

This is the third year Buttons has left around this time. The last two years she returned some time in October or November. Seriously, I don't think she's far, but I do wonder why she disappears and steers clear of the farm for so long. And why is it always in September? Last year, I thought it was because we'd moved and she didn't like the new place. The year before, we thought she got into an old home where the owner left for several weeks. Every time we think she's gone for good and have just gotten used to the idea that she won't be back when she suddenly appears. I hope that's the case this time as well.

But I wonder where she goes and why she leaves. Is there something about fall that calls her into the woods, that makes her long to reconnect with the wild cat in her? Are we not feeding her enough to help her fatten up for the long winter outside? Does the sound of goats in heat drive her nuts like it does me sometimes? Do cats have spiritual lives that need tending? Does she go on a spirit quest every year? A silent retreat?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Cattle trails

Most of the land we live on is wooded with oak, hickory, pecan, and walnut trees. Cattle trails wind in and out of the forest and provide us with a way to explore the farm. Lisa and I followed one last night through the back pasture and across to an area of the farm where a spring runs and fills several ponds. It's beautiful. Crab apples are ripening, as are the persimmons, filling the air with hints of fall.

The woods never look the same. No matter how often we walk the trails there are places that seem new and unfamiliar. From the lush greens of a rainy spring day to the stark absence of green in winter, the woods show a new face each time we hike. I'm struck by all the life that makes its home in the woods. Last night I walked through something, some tall grass perhaps, and came out with a dark brown patch on my leg. I bent down to investigate just in time to see dozens of tiny little bugs scatter across my leg. Lisa thinks they are chiggers. I'm not convinced, but I brushed them off furiously just in case, and then wiped down with alcohol and showered when I got home.

Our walk last night started with a hike out through the back pasture to close the gate. A cattle trail led us through a part of the farm we hadn't explored before. After a few minutes we reached a place that's familiar, a fork in the path where we'd always turned north. We headed down the familiar path to our favorite pond. The pond is lined with reeds on three sides. There's a beautiful clearing to the north, with a perfect canopy of shade on the edge. We'd like to camp there some day, and hope it will happen soon. Until a few weeks ago, cattle roamed freely through the woods. Neither of us wanted to camp there with them around. As friendly as they are, I wouldn't want to wake up to them checking out our tent.

I love this time of year, when the farm is slowing down enough to allow time to explore. The evenings bring cooler temperatures and the sun's light softens, inviting me to shed the office and spend some time outside after work. There's a sense of urgency in it. Soon, darkness will set as I drive home, giving the last glimpse of light on the western horizon as I pull into the driveway.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The end to a long summer

These days I go to parties where people sit around and play music, eat food we've made with our own hands, and talk about what a horrible summer it's been for tomatoes. I've never been much of the party-going type, but this I can handle. After working all day outside moving fences and doing chores, it's hard to make ourselves get in the truck and drive the 30+ minutes it takes to get anywhere our good friends live, but it does help.

Farming sometimes feels very lonely and isolating. We have neighbors that live fairly close, but we don't see them much and even if we did, we'd still feel isolated. They don't farm. The isolation we experience is of a particular kind. It's the kind where until we make an effort to check in with someone else who is doing what we're doing, we feel like we're the only ones having struggles or going through tough times.

We went to an annual party held by a friend of ours on Sunday. It's a party that marks the end of summer, and for some of us, the end of the farmers market season. It's a good chance each year to catch up with some friends after the busy market season, when it's hard to get together with anyone. Naturally, the conversations turn to what kind of year it's been, and if the conversations on Sunday are any indication, it's been a rough year for farming. The usual playful feel of this party was replaced with a fatigue that was palpable. We were in the truck headed home well before the sun was completely out of the sky....and we weren't the first to leave.

In spite of the struggles, we've had a decent year. It's our first year at this location, and Lisa and the interns did an amazing job of eeking out some good veggies from soil so nutrient-depleted from years of laying fallow that it's hard to imagine much of anything good growing from it. In another couple of years, with lots of good compost and proper cover crop planting, we'll be in good shape. The animals that have managed to fight off the barber pole worm look healthy and well-fed. The dinners have been amazing, and have helped us introduce our farm to new people.

But it's been hard too. The heat has been outrageous, burning up plants and beating up anyone who dares stay out in it very long. It's taken a toll on some of the weaker animals, leaving them susceptible to the barber pole worm which thrives in hot, humid conditions. We've lost two or three lambs already, including Lily, and have two near death. We were able to save two or three that have been infected by the worm, but this worm is wicked and very hard to treat. Worst of all, the anthelmintics that are available to farmers now are growing increasingly ineffective. The worms are developing a resistance to them, leaving us with management of the sheep and goat's grazing as the main option for prevention and protection.

We're not alone. Others are facing the same problem. For some, it may mean not having any lambs left to sell when the time comes. If the cooler weather shows up soon and we see an end to the high temps during the day, we will be fine, but it's hard to lose animals.

At one point during the conversation on Sunday, someone asked if we thought the winter would be mild. No one responded. Another asked if we'd looked in the Farmers Almanac. No one had had the courage. I pray it's mild, well at least not as harsh as last winter. I know a lot of people who could use the break.