farming, Uncategorized

Horse Talk

We had the vet come out a few days ago, he reminds me of my Uncle James and I think that’s why I like him so much. There are lots of different kinds of vets, of course. And there are lots of different kinds of horse people. James was the kind with a calm voice and quiet hands – he had a steadiness about him that put jumpy or nervous horses at ease.

James was always more comfortable in an old barn than anywhere else. He was the kind of cowboy that knew it didn’t matter what kind of saddle you had, or how old your boots and spurs might be. Good horsemanship comes with experience, with worn leather and faded jeans. He would rather have a familiar horse and dog for company out on the trail, honest and reliable, than a high dollar show pony.

The vet, John, knew James fairly well. He has made several farm calls for us since I moved here. He came out in the spring to float a few teeth and castrate our 2-year old colt. John is also the one who made an emergency call for a mare we used to own, Miss Smokin’ Kaylee, who decided to spoil a nice, quiet Sunday morning by running through a fence. He and his wife left church early that Sunday to help, and I’m not sure what we would have done without them. After just a few minutes with her, I could tell he had been around horses for years. He was calm, gentle, spoke in a low voice and ran his hand down her neck in long, smooth strokes. Not only did it calm her down, but it helped me calm down too.

Some horse people like to be the boss. They have heavy hands and jerk with their legs and arms, demanding instead of asking. This makes for a jumpy and a flighty horse. Other people, usually on the more green side, are scared something bad might happen, and remain tense the entire ride. Getting hurt is a bit of a given. You can be kicked, bitten, thrown, run over or run under trees, just to name a few.  Horses are herd animals – everything they do is to ensure their survival. And you just have to know how to read those signs and communicate in a way they understand.

The thing I appreciate the most about John is he talks through everything with you. He doesn’t talk at you, or to you, but with you. When he came out to castrate the colt in the Spring, he explained the reason for the dosage to put him under. He showed me how he rubbed the vein with his thumb to desensitize it, before smoothly putting the needle in to inject the anesthetic. About 45 seconds later, the colt’s eyes glazed over. He widened his stance, trying to brace himself, and his head lowered until his nose almost touched the ground.

John eased him over, and the colt laid down with a sigh. He then looped the lead-rope around his back leg and tied it around his chest. After putting on a pair of gloves and washing the area thoroughly, he talked me through exactly what he was doing. I won’t go into detail, but I learned quite a lot that day. And after a few minutes, the colt stood, head still drooping, and we turned him back out in the pasture for the day.

Malcolm Gladwell has a theory that to perfect something, you need to practice for 10,000 hours. Think of musicians, athletes, reporters, what have you. For you to truly master an art or a task, you have to have so many hours, days, years, of repetition for it to really sink in. James had that. Our vet has it, thankfully, and is willing to teach me some too. Sadie definitely has it, and it’s something I hope to learn too. It helps when the thing you are practicing is also a life passion of yours, one that keeps you up at night dreaming, and gets you out of bed every morning!

farming, Uncategorized

The Pig Derby

Since I’m still sick, and nothing exciting is happening, I’ve got to write about the day that the pigs got out. Pigs are notorious escape artists, everyone knows that. They are clever and usually hunger driven. They can just about get out of any pen, anywhere, anytime.
I got back from helping Uncle clean stalls, it was ridiculously hot outside, and I decided to get Tug up out of the field and give him a nice cool rinse with the hose.

The horses were standing in the hall of the barn, head to tail, dozing and swishing flies. Tug’s flank was dark with sweat, he had ‘road map’ along his shoulder, which is just a horsey way to say his veins were showing, trying to cool the blood pumping up and down his legs. We walked up to the pump house just outside of the kitchen and he picked at the grass while I hosed him down.

I scrubbed his sides with a handful of grass and rinsed the dust and sweat away. He tossed his head when I sprayed his nose and ears, but it just a bluff. We both knew how much he was enjoying it. Right when I finished rinsing his other side, some movement on the hill caught my eye.

Tug and I both looked and I saw the unmistakable shape of piglet running past the chicken coop. My stomach flopped over. Good gosh, all the time and sweat and money that went into it, there he was running around as free as a bird. It was like watching a $100 bill blowing away into the wind.

I tied Tug, then thought better if it immediately untied him and led him to the main gate. I pulled the gate closed and dropped the rope – he could pick grass, he would be fine, as long as he didn’t get his rope tangled up too bad. I sped-walked up to the barn, then noticed the back gate on the high hill was opened. Which led to the woods, and the road. Knowing the day so far, Tug would end up out there while I was chasing pigs. I about died running up that hill. got that gate latched, then walked back down to survey the damage.

The latest version of of the ‘Piggy Palace’ included a wooden platform in the barn for the piglets to take shelter, and a rectangle yard leading from there alongside the wall of the chicken yard. Sadie got a 50′ roll of woven wire, which we stretched just outside two strands of electric wire. The three boys had somehow gotten out and were running laps around the barn.

I couldn’t see any obvious gap where they got out, but who knows. I herded the two girls into the barn and barred the opening with boards, then went after the three boys. They wouldn’t let me anywhere near them. They would split up, run around the field, then join back together, tails wagging. I needed backup – so I called Uncle Rick.

The conversation went something like “hey, are you busy, the pigs are out” and he sighed and said “I’ll be right there.” I already had sweat dripping down my face, so I backed off a bit and kept an eye on the piglets. After a few minutes, they settled down to graze again, completely oblivious.

When Uncle arrived, he grabbed a stick and an apple basket and tried to help me herd them to the hall of the barn, where I could corner one and grab it long enough to put back inside the fence. I couldn’t tell you how many times we chased them around the ban – it had to be at least 30. Lots of sweat, and a few choice words later, I realized we needed another plan.

I cut the strings holding the wire to the side of the barn and stretched it out. Uncle herded the piglets around the barn again, and they ran right past me. The black and white one decided to check out the plastic trough we had next to the barn, climbed in, and couldn’t get out. It would have been funny, if we weren’t so frustrated, watching his little legs run in place. By the time I got over to him, he had clamored out. That would have been an easy catch.

So around the barn we went again, piggy legs pumping, and I held the wire open. Uncle backed off a little once they came around the corner, and I think that’s what did it. I swung the wire around again and voila – the Piggy’s were back in the palace. We heaved a sigh of relief, wiping sweat from our eyes.

But it wasn’t three seconds later, that dang black and white piglet ran to the end of the wire and ducked underneath. I was dumbfounded. Here we go again. Uncle said “That pig belongs between a biscuit,” and I couldn’t agree more. He sure was a clever thing. I moved the boards to the barn and herded the two captured piglets in with their sisters. One went right for the pan of water and sat right down in it.

Uncle and I herded biscuit around the barn again, and he made a quick turn for the hall of the barn, leading to the gate where the rest of his brothers and sisters were relaxing. I saw my chance. I dropped the stick I was holding and went straight for him. Against the barn wall and the wire gate, we both knew he was trapped. I dove on my knees and tackled him against the ground.

Biscuit squealed, Uncle laughed, and I held on tight. I grabbed him by the back leg and yanked him up in the air. He was writhing like a fish on a hook. I swung him over the fence and dropped him in the pen with his siblings. Once I let go, he quit screaming, and brushed myself off. Uncle and I tightened the wire fence and discovered that the electric current had stopped because it had a bad connection to the grounding wire.

Uncle fixed it with some electrical tape and gave me a tester so I could check it daily. We laughed all the way back down the hill. I found Tug and put him back in the field, he promptly rolled in a patch of dirt, and I decided to call it a day. It was definitely more excitement than I had bargained for.

When Sadie got home, Uncle told her what happened. She thought we were making it up! Once we convinced her it was true, she said “Well, I guess I’m moving out.” Considering the pigs were her idea, I knew she felt bad we spent all that time chasing them. I said “If you do, you’re taking those pigs with you!”

fall, farming, Uncategorized

Sick Day

Well I’m still here, it’s been so long I’m not even sure where I left off. But I’m sick today, home with some kind of sinus thing. It’s just after one and I am already done with it. I’m in bed with two cats, Zoe is sleeping on the couch, and from the windows I can see the birds at the feeder and the studs grazing in the field.

Sadie let the chickens out this morning, the ducks waddled right over and are enjoying the weeds right outside. It wouldn’t be so bad, but all I can think about is the mowing I want to do, the cleaning I probably should be doing, and all the much more fun activities that are outside.

Thinking back, I haven’t been sick in about a year. I think there’s something to say for fresh county air, sleeping like a baby, and a diet of mostly home-grown veggies. (I spent so much time planting them, of course I’m going to eat them). Maybe I can catch up on some reading. It is rather overcast today, I’m trying to trick myself into thinking there’s nothing else I could be doing.

Speaking of veggies, the garden is about completely done for the year. It goes so fast I can hardly believe it. We need to dig a few potatoes, pick a few more peppers, and it’s a wrap. Honestly I can’t believe it’s over. You don’t realize how much time you spend in the garden until you don’t need to, then all of a sudden Sadie and I have a nice dinner, watch some Olympics, and sit on the front porch until the moon comes up.

Fall is on it’s way, you can feel it in the air. I’m not ready for the leaves to fall yet, but if I have learned anything from living on a far, it’s that there is a season for everything. You can’t have one without the other, it’s a balance. I will miss time in the garden though, it is ready to be mowed again and left to rest. That’s what Fall is, a time for rest. Sadie and I will have more time to ride, which we really haven’t done in ages. And I miss that too.

But for now, all the critters are showing me the best way to get better, and I think that includes a nice long cat nap.


farming, Uncategorized

Friday Nights

After work on Friday, I helped Uncle clean stalls. He has three Tennessee Walker’s that he fusses over morning and evening, they love it. He has a Tennessee Walker silhouette on his mailbox, and stickers on the back of his big, gold Dodge Ram. Each of his horses has a big, roomy stall that he built, with high windows that have fans in front to keep the flies away. Threat, the stud, and Reba, their mare, are both chestnuts. PW, his favorite, is jet black and as big as a locomotive. He raised her from a colt, and she will pin her ears back at everyone but him.

Walking to the barn, I see three heads sticking over the stall doors, all eyes on us. Threat bellowed and Reba nickered a hello. Uncle gave them several flakes of hay to keep them busy, I grabbed a pitch fork and we started cleaning. We scooped the dirty shavings into the wheelbarrow, and spread fresh, clean ones in the middle of the stalls. The horses stay busy munching their hay, paying us no mind.

After checking their water and feeding them grain, we settled in the gravel hallway of the barn. I sat on the top of a step-stool and he unfolded a camping chair, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his faded shirt pocket. He smokes like a chimney, but I really don’t mind.

Uncle has a grey goatee that he tugs when he is thinking about something. His arms are tanned and scarred like leather, and his hands are calloused from years of cutting and nailing wood for houses, barns and countless pieces of furniture. He has helped Sadie and I so much in this past year, I don’t know what we would do without him. We aren’t blood related, not one drop, but he is family. And I enjoy wasting away the evenings there, listening to stories from the comfort of the barn.

I love that barn, it’s beautiful. It’s simple, but most good ones are. We listened to the horses munching and stared out at the fields leading to the river, before bucking up into a mountain ridge. Our house faces the east, so I get the best sunrises. But Uncle’s faces the west over the river, and they get to most beautiful sunsets. I know he loves it as fiercely as I love our farm, there is no place we would rather be.

It’s quiet for a while, Uncle talks, but not when it’s unnecessary. He’s a slow talker. I learned that you can’t ever be in a hurry if you’re waiting for him to say something. He’s got that classic easy southern drawl. It’s why he is so good with horses, and probably why they respect him so much. He learned carpentry work from his dad, who was part Cherokee Indian, and was raised near Gatlinburg with his 12 siblings. He trained Walking Horses for a long time, he and his wife Dawn did well in the show circuit. But now, he has his three favorites safe and happy. He’s too in love with the mountains to go travelling again.

At some point in the evening, we both rise and close the big, sliding wooden doors. After a long week, it’s a great way to end the day. And it’s about the only way I ever want to spend a Friday night. There is a peace about relaxing in the barn once all the work is done, the animals are fed and ready for the night. It feels good knowing they each have full bellies, clean water, and fresh shavings to bed down in. I was ready for bed too, and said my goodbyes. They told me to be careful, and I made the short drive back to our farm.

It’s less than a mile, the road leaving Uncles climbs up from the valley, before turning onto the main road, you can look out and see the fields spread away like a patchwork quilt, cut in two by the wide bend of the French Broad River. From there, the road curves and winds down, tunneled by trees. It doesn’t open up again until you get to our farm, our old tobacco barn sits on the hill, and I see our horses grazing in the evening light. They don’t have big stalls to sleep in each night, but I kind of like to think maybe they prefer sleeping under the stars.



Summertime Storms

We had an epic thunderstorm this afternoon, the sky went black and the clouds looked like a grey ocean hanging upside down, rolling and boiling and sweeping across the sky. The wind rushed over the fields, around the rolled hay bales, and bent the young green grass sideways. When I got home, the rain was slacking off and the house was dark. Zoe was the only one to greet me at the door, and I had a good idea where everyone else was.

Sadie was stretched out in her king-sized bed with the two dogs and a cat. I said “don’t move a muscle!” Zoe followed me back downstairs, I changed clothes, poured a cup of coffee and grabbed the novel I was about 45 pages away from finishing.

I can’t think of too many other times I get home from work and head straight to bed, unless I’m sick. Or it’s snowing. I’m usually so wired from sitting inside all day, I turn right back around and head out to see what’s happening in the field, in the coop, or in the garden. But Sadie always keeps her ceiling fan on high – her room was cool and the sky was dark from the storm. It was definitely the right choice.

She dozed back off, I sipped my coffee and finished my book, snuggled way under the covers. It was fantastic, and may have to become a rainy afternoon tradition. After I finished my book, I left Sadie to her nap and went to the kitchen. The rain had stopped, and the sky was a golden yellow, streaking through the remaining clouds. The dogs yawned and stretched, I decided it was time for a little run.

We live on a dead end road, it’s not quite two lanes, and doesn’t have any paint lines. There are only half a dozen other farms, and the road ends at a locked gate leading to the mountain ridge. Down and back, it’s only about a mile and a half. I strolled down the driveway, dogs in tow, and started jogging down the road.

They couldn’t have been happier, all three of them loped along, zig-zagging across the road to smell whatever else had crossed that day. Casey ran a groundhog into it’s hole, which was so large, she could fit her whole head inside.

Just beyond our house, the road is lined by trees. I smelled mimosa and jasmine flowers, and birds crossed over my head, in search of bugs and seeds. Just passed our neighbors 5 acres, the trees give way to a field Mr. Case cuts for hay. The hills roll down into a small creek bed, before rising to a rounded mountain half covered in trees. There is a red barn near the road, which currently houses only pigeons.

Jim Hicks just finished cutting, raking and rolling hay, so the green field is dotted with hundreds of round hay bales. To the left sits our neighbors pond, surrounded by cattails, with dozens of swallows swooping above. The road rises above the creek that feeds the pond, then falls into a small valley in the shadow of the mountain ridge.

We turn around at the gate at the foot of the mountains and head back. The dogs stay just in front of me, pausing only to smell the occasional mailbox. Tongues lolling, they trot along at my pace, panting. I stopped at the creek to let them drink, Zoe went in up to her knees, sprinting out, slinging mud.

Weeds bloomed in the fence rows, delicate Queen Anne’s lace, bright purple thistles, white clover and yellow dandelions. Leftover rain dripped the trees, I knew Zoe’s paws would be clean from the wet grass by the time we got back. It felt good to run, to be outside under the sky, running with the pack, our blood pumping and feet pounding the pavement. It’s nice to read and rest, but it’s nice to be outside too. To see the mountains after it rains, watch the sun slip away. I would never have guessed that living on a dead-end road would be so amazing.


farming, Uncategorized

Stink, Stank, Skunk.

I somehow managed to spend most of the weekend away from the farm. I didn’t intend to, we still have several bushels of beans to can, but looking back I couldn’t really help it. Today I ran a few errands, picked up some things on my to-do list and tried to be a responsible adult. But the best part of the day was hitting our two lane road with the windows down. I saw several deer on my way home, the sun was shining down warm and bright, and the sky was blue with big puffs of cotton-ball clouds. When I got home I changed into my farm clothes, tugged my rubber boots on, then headed up the hill with the dogs in tow.

Standing in the chicken coop, plenty muddy and sweaty, filling up the duck bath while the hens pecked around, gosh that’s better than any supermarket on earth. Sometimes you need a day in town to appreciate the feeling of being on the farm. There’s no crowds, no traffic, no red lights. It’s just the sun and the sky and the earth under your feet, and everywhere you look is life among all the green and growing things.

For all the good days, the ones that just last and last, and you can’t help but keep drinking it up to the last drop, we get some crazy ones too. Zoe slipped out when Sadie got home from work. When I pulled up at the house, she hopped right in my car, tongue lolling like she hadn’t done a thing wrong. And boy did she STINK. I knew what she had been up to – it starts with an S and ends in K-U-N-K.

We got out of the car, flew through the kitchen, and went straight for the front porch. I tied her to a long cable, gave her a big bowl of water and laid out an old blanket, then Sadie and I called it a night. The kitchen, my hands and my clothes all smelled like skunk. I’ve lived here a little over a year now, and man am I thankful that this is the first incident. I might not have stuck around so long if I knew about that odor. It’s some potent stuff.

This morning I put Zoe in the tub, armed with a bottle of skunk deodorizer and a ‘recipe’ of peroxide, baking soda and a little bit of Dawn soap. I washed her twice, getting myself and the bathroom floor just as wet as she was. Oh she looked so pitiful, all soaking wet, gosh you should have heard her whine. I reminded her that it was all her fault, but I don’t know if she really understood. When I was finally satisfied, I dried her off, put the whole mess in the washing machine, and brought her out for Sadie to smell test.

Skunks are made to smell. I don’t know what all is in that spray, but it is potent stuff, and it lingers. Apparently, for the next few months, whenever Zoe gets wet we will get to enjoy that smell all over again. Sadie gave the thumbs up so Zoe got to stay inside, then I went went straight back to the tub and tried to get the smell out of my nose. The kitchen was still a little ripe, so we lit a candle. Sadie said it will hang around for a while, so I guess I need to get used to it.

When I got in my car to run errands today I just about gagged and called it quits. I drove the whole way with all the windows down, but it didn’t make much of a difference. I bought an air freshener for the AC vent, but now it just smells like a skunk that came from a tropical island. It wasn’t the first time I wished for a truck, and it won’t be the last. But it’s part of living life out here, and you never know what will happen in a day on the farm.

But tonight, Sadie and I saw the most beautiful sunset. It spread across the sky behind the mountains and over the river, all orange and gold and pink, slowly slipping into dark blues and purple. After checking to make sure everyone was safely up for the night, I stopped at the end of the sidewalk and looked up to the sky. The big dipper was hanging right above our house. The handle was tipped, almost like it was pouring out all the stars into the night sky. The crickets and frogs were singing their summertime symphony, and for a moment, I couldn’t smell skunk at all.

farming, Uncategorized

White Half-Runners

It’s almost that time of year. The time where all of the vegetables in the garden are all ready to be picked at once. It’s like the Olympics, Senior Finals, or Tax Season, but for farming. We have been waiting all year for this! I can’t help but think of the hours of tilling, fertilizing, hoeing, planting, weeding, and more weeding that has led up to this moment.

Yesterday morning Sadie and I got up and went straight to the garden. The green beans were ready, Sadie and I had to catch up. We have been picking the squash and zucchini as it becomes ready, that’s not so difficult, but with beans -well, you go by their book. We started at the very end of the row, we got a bench and a bucket to sit on, and lined another bucket with a plastic bag.

It was a beautiful morning, we were in the shade from the walnut tree across the road, and all the birds were singing. There are several ways to grow green beans, some people put them by a trellis, others make an arch from a sturdy piece of fence, like a hog or cattle panel. You can put posts in the ground on either side of the rows, tie string at the top and bottom, then run another string up and down so the vines have something to climb.

Sadie and I did the “oh we waited to long to string these, now what” option. One Saturday I put 3 or 4 T-Posts across the rows, tied some string across, and called it a day. It didn’t get us too far. The vines are so strong, they pull the strings down into U shapes, then just kept going around the posts and each other.

The next weekend, we got some 5″ square wire fencing and tied to the posts, so the beans could have something to pull on that wouldn’t give. We only have enough for one row, so the next row got some rust pieces I found out by the barn. Those only went halfway across, so the rest of the row got more string. Next year, we will have the good wire up by the time the first seedlings appear.

Once we had two buckets full, and had finished most of the first row, we came inside to ‘break’ the beans. We dumped them in the sink and ran cold water over them to get off the dirt and bugs, then spread them out over a towel on the kitchen table. I don’t quite know how to describe stringing and breaking beans, I’m assuming you may have done it sometime in your life, hopefully.

You start at the end where the bean grows off the vine, break it with your thumb, and pull the string all the way to the other end where the bean tapers off. Then you pull the string back to the stem end, a bit like unzipping something, then you break the bean in half so it’s bite sized, the strings go in one bucket and the broken bean go in another.

I don’t know how to tell you how many beans we broke either. It was a lot of beans. You have to watch out for brown spots where the bugs may have gotten to them, or for a skin that doesn’t crisp well, if it feels soft you open it up, drop the white beans in, and discard the shell. Those are called shelly’s, when the bean is good but the skin isn’t worth saving.

When I came home from work to eat lunch, Sadie and I broke beans. When I got home from work in the evening, we broke beans. Once that batch was done, we boiled them in big pots on the stove to blanch them. Then they went in the fridge. Sadie and I went back outside with our buckets to pick the next row, Uncle came by to help, and we filled up pretty quickly. The beans went into the sink, onto the towel, and we set to work.

You know in those old movies how you see the ladies sitting on the porch, breaking beans over a bowl and talking? It was almost exactly like that. The dogs napped under the table, I had a cat in my lap, and we sat at the table, breaking beans and pulling strings. We talked about everything, horses, favorite meals, the weather, old scars, you name it. I was so cozy with the cat in my lap, the sun setting outside, and us all sitting around the table in our bright, cheerful kitchen. The lightning bugs came out and I got so sleepy, we broke beans until after 11, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I know you can get canned beans at the store. I know in today’s world, you don’t have to grow, break, and can your own to survive. But there’s something about the feeling of tending your own garden, of growing beans from a seed and taking each step in the process from planting it, to having it on your table. It’s so rewarding. It’s so much work, and it is incredibly worth it.

This morning Sadie and I got the blanched beans out of the fridge and put them on the stove to heat. We put pint mason jars in the oven at 200 degrees, and put the lids in a pot of boiling  water to heat. She got the pressure cooker from the basement (that thing is massive) and filled it with hot water.

Canning beans is different than canning relish or jam. Once you get the beans in the hot jar, you pack them in with a slotted spoon, add boiling water and a teaspoon of salt, then place the sealed jar in the pressure cooker under about an inch of water. The pressure cooker holds 7 pint jars. Then the lid screws on and you can’t leave the kitchen for anything. You want to heat the cooker so the pressure builds to 12 pounds and holds. It has to stay there for 25 minutes to prevent botulism, and to accurately seal the beans in the jar.

I got a little antsy being in the kitchen, I’ll be honest. I’m not the best cook. I don’t quite have enough patience to see a meal through, but it helped having Sadie there. We watched the gauge, adjusted the eye, and set the timer. Boy do we make a mess. There were pots of boiling water, pot holders, spoons and towels everywhere. I felt like we both had full facials from standing over all that steam, but I’d say it was a success.

When the timer beeped, we cut the stove off and we were free. Sadie went to work, and I headed up to the chicken coop. It would be hours before that thing was cool enough to touch, and I didn’t mind being away from the kitchen until then. We left plenty of smaller beans on the vine, in just a few more days, it will be time to pick, string, break and can all over again!