farming, Uncategorized

Christmas Miracles

I am very thankful it’s Saturday. The dogs are napping by the stove, Sadie is reading the paper, and I hear the birds just outside looking for spilled seeds. It snowed all night, the sun is shining and everything is glittering white. I have already started to dream up when we can plant the garden.

I am thinking of getting Honey Bees this year, not sure how that will play out but it seems like a good idea. And we plan to have several rows of corn we can grind into cornmeal, which I am excited to try. Even though it’s winter on the farm and the land is resting, there is always something exciting in the works.

The pigs have a date with you-know-who on January 24th. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss them, even though they did get out on Christmas day and had me up to my elbows in mud right when family arrived. Once we got everyone put away, it was a wonderful evening. Sadie had a full feast laid out, we ate and swapped stories into the night.

My Uncle Jack’s first cousin is a sweet lady named Wanda, the who wears rings on every finger. She married a man named Robert who met Jesus right before he got out of prison – now he’s got some stories. Robert is the kind of guy who will just about break your hand every time he shakes it, and will do just about anything to help somebody. He and my Dad got to talking after Christmas dinner, and before you could say “fruit cake” they already deemed the day after Christmas as a farm work day.

The next morning, we woke up to Robert’s arrival in his bucket truck, pulling a trailer with the most beautiful Bobcat machine I have ever seen. We all stood outside, half finished toast and coffee in hand, and watched as he roared up the driveway with a claw-full of brush from a pile by the road.

I don’t think anyone had time to blink that whole day. We removed two old stumps that tree experts told me we couldn’t do anything with. He cut down at least 8 dead trees that were posing a threat to our house, then he started on the remains of my Uncle’s shop that had collapsed years ago. My sister and I took down old fence lines while Robert, my Dad and my Brother reduced entire trees to little piles of firewood. We took two loads to the dump, and I am proud to say that was the day we removed the final, old abandoned toilet on our property.

By 5pm, everything was done. Robert heaped the rotten trees and pieces of the old shop in a big pile to burn. It was, by far, the most productive and satisfying work-day we have had yet. He wore us out, but we got more done in that day than we have since I got here. It was a Christmas Miracle and I won’t ever forget it.

 

 

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farming, Uncategorized

The Great Smoky Mountains

Well if you’ve been anywhere near the news lately, you know that over 17,000 acres of the Smoky Mountains have burned in a wildfire. Our farm is just a stone’s throw from the Sevier County line, but we are about an hour from Chimney Top, where the fire started. Two weeks ago was the first time Sadie and I went over the official fire plan, what we would take, where we would meet if we got separated.

The forecast called for rain that night, but in just a few hours the wind had picked up and spread sparks all over the mountains. We could smell the smoke from our house. I kept standing outside, scanning the sky for the sight of embers. It was terrifying. We planned on opening gates to let the horses out, turning the pigs and chickens loose, and packing the dogs and cats in the car. But what can you take? How can you pack up an entire farmhouse? What if we left and came back to land charred and scorched, without our home, or the familiar outline of the old barn on the horizon?

The fire jumped roads and rivers, it leveled homes, buildings and cars. You can’t stop something like that. Firemen from all over the country worked overtime, they risked their lives to try and contain it. But coming off months of drought, with high winds, all you can do is get to safety.

All I could think was to get the dogs and cats and get on the road. And that all I wanted to take was my Uncle Jack’s knife, our land survey, and the door frame that has our heights marked in sharpie. But what about my favorite boots? The quilt on my bed that’s older than I am? All the pictures? Sadie’s shotgun that Jack gave her for their anniversary, my books, Nana’s paintings, a bottle of beach sand from my brother, all the letters and cards I have saved from over the years…?

Of course these things are nothing compared to our lives, or the lives of the animals we are responsible for. But they are what make my life mine. I love this farm life, and  I still can’t believe that I get to be a part of it. I wake up every morning and look at the mountains fading to the horizon, over fields cut by the creek, and surrounded by fences I’ve repaired with my own to hands.

I’m proud to work this land with my Aunt Sadie, everything we own is on these 18.75 acres. And all of that could be lost in a fire. This land is more than land to me – my Mom grew up here, and now I am thankful to call this farm home. I will never take these things for granted.

But the wildfires have already begun to fade from the national news. The curfew was lifted last week, and people are returning to Gatlinburg to see what is left and what is gone. Sadie and I made the drive up through the mountains on Saturday, we took a dear friend of hers home from the hospital, and neither one of us knew what to expect.

Ric lives on the very end of what’s called the strip, a small two lane road surrounded by shops, restaurants and hotels. There are tourists walking the streets year round, and it’s a popular skiing spot in the winter. Sadie and I have been several times, we usually take my younger cousins, and there are always plenty of people to watch walk by.

The strip was all lit up, but the surrounding mountains were black with soot. The wooden sign welcoming you to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park was over halfway burned. Several cabins just hundreds of feet away were reduced to cinders and ash, sometimes only chimney’s remained. We saw cars reduced to twisted metal shells, fallen trees, and the smell of smoke and soot hung in the air. Pulling up at the apartments, we saw a home burned to the foundation, it sat just a few hundred yards away.

Outside of the apartment there was a red X spray-painted on the concrete, marking that the first responders had searched the building for bodies. They had kicked the door in – it would close, but it wouldn’t latch. Neighbors came out to greet Ric, hugging him, telling us they were thankful he was okay.

I’m learning that East Tennessee is a bit different than most places around. Since the rain helped to contain the fire, donations have poured in – many of the shelters had to turn away clothes and bottled water because they didn’t have anywhere to store them. People have opened their homes to their neighbors who don’t have one. Dozens of stores have started toy drives to ensure that families who have lost everything can still have a Merry Christmas.

Sadie and I are so blessed, we got several days of rain and I know that it came just in time to help the fire fighters. But I won’t forget that night where the wind howled around our house, and I knew there wasn’t anything we could do to stop the fires that may have spread to our home.

If you want to help the folks in Gatlinburg who have lost their homes, please donate. The wonderful Dolly Parton is hosting a telethon tonight, you can tune in online or on TV. Please consider giving to help some of our neighbors in these Great Smoky Mountain’s!

http://www.tennessean.com/story/entertainment/music/2016/12/12/how-watch-dolly-partons-smoky-mountains-telethon/95360082/

From our farm to yours, these Green Acres are an amazing place to be.

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farming

What a Drag

When I was a teenager, my two older sisters kept their horses at a barn about an hour from our home. It was outside the ‘bustling metropolis’ of Palatka Florida, and sat on almost 400 acres of beautifully tended fields, clean fence rows, and wooden trails you could get lost in. In exchange for board, we would help with chores around the barn – cleaning stalls, exercising horses, and dragging the pasture.

Dragging the pasture was just a fancy way for the owner to say “go knock down every pile of horse poop in that field so the grass grows even.” We would hook a metal livestock gate to the back of the Gator and make laps around the endless fields. My sisters, being fair dictators, set up a schedule so we were able to take turns. Becca would even let me borrow her iPod (which was a big incentive) on my round.

The shift would start with getting a full tank of gas from the gallon jugs in the shop,  a charged iPod (when it was available) and some kind of protective wear like a hat or sunglasses. If you were smart, you would start with an empty bladder. When it was my shift, Amber would open the gate wide and wave me in, making sure no horses got out, and taking care that it was latched before walking back to the barn. I usually did a perimeter lap, then started and one end and worked my way to the gate and civilization.

There was some kind of meditative element to all that driving. I would let my mind wander, turning at each end of the fence, humming along to whatever song was playing. Some small part of me found satisfaction in turning that pasture back into a smooth, green field. It got lonesome, but there was peacefulness there too.

We’d usually break at lunch and head down the road. The shell gas station had amazing, seasoned potato wedges and chicken fingers. Something about all that driving really worked up an appetite. Then it was back to the barn, back to the pasture, and making the final turns to finish the field.

Time went by, as it does so well. When my sister’s prepared to go to college, the horses were re-homed. I volunteered at the Jacksonville Zoo during high school, then got into surfing, then went to college myself. Looking back, it’s funny to see how things get shelved just before college. I was another wide-eyed freshman then, if you has asked me then where I would be in 5 years, I would not have said living on a farm. I had no idea that it would come back full circle.

But here we are! And I wouldn’t trade it, as Sadie says, “for all the tea in China.” Last week I found myself rooting around in the barn for the perfect gate to drag the pasture with. I finally decided on a chain-link fence panel that we had discarded, mainly because at some point, someone had cut a large round hole in the middle. It wasn’t much good after that. I found a sturdy rope, hooked up to the back of our four wheeler, and off I went.

I couldn’t help but think of how, about 10 years ago, chances were I was doing the exact same thing on another farm, pulling another gate. Without overstating my point, it was surreal. We haven’t had rain in months, so following my bouncing, chain-link panel was a great big cloud of dust. The horses didn’t care for my idea on bit. I circled the field around the barn, where they spend the hottest part of the day, until Sadie got home. She laughed, and I kept right on.

Fortunately, the 4-wheeler has headlights, so I worked a little past dark. At least until I was satisfied I had made some kind of effect on the appearance of the pasture. I put the rope away and leaned the panel against the barn. It had found another use and would stay, for now. It was full of dried grass and pieces of pulled weed. Then I made my way up the hill back to the house, dusty and smiling, to whatever delicious meal Sadie had on the stove. Maybe one day I will ask her to make some potato wedges.

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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!

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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!”

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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.

 

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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.

 

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