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

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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farming, Uncategorized

Down on the Farm

This is from this weekend and I finally had time to finish it!

Today was a great day.

I’m at my desk in my pajamas, hair still damp from the shower, and my face is just the smallest bit sunburned. I know – sun! The weather today was perfect, as soon as I woke up I knew. The sun popped over the ridge like a cork and the beams shone in through my windows, on the floor and on the wall in long, golden streams. I got a cup of coffee and crawled back under the covers to watch it rise.

The horses were as sun drunk as I was, they gathered near the hay rolls and dozed back off. The donkeys were both laying down, eventually Tyla and Seeker laid down too, the colt was fully stretched out on his side. I got hungry enough to get up again and had a bowl of cereal.

After I got dressed, the dogs followed me up the hill. I let the chickens out to peck and stretched the hose up to fill the duck bath, which had been frozen for quite a while considering we hadn’t seen the sun in a few days. We moved the two studs up to that pasture, they play-fight and run up and down the hill snorting and pawing and carrying on. I grained them and they ended up eating out of the same pan. Boys.

I moved some wood from the shed up to the porch to stack, with the pleasant weather we won’t need it right away but you never know. We also had some trouble with our propane tank, which fuels the furnace for central heating. Apparently the regulator was leaking, they came out and repaired it Wednesday so Sadie and I can keep the house warm in the evenings.

We headed down the driveway to the barn, I gave everyone some grain and let the Jack donkey out of the barn. With the two studs across the road, we took down the fence separating the two pastures. Jack donkey wasn’t a fan of all the company, I led him up the hill and put him with the two studs, who immediately began making a huge fuss and each tried to impress the donkey.

Then I went back to the barn and pulled Mama mare out of the pasture, someone is coming to look at buying her tomorrow. She was covered in mud, which had caked in her wooly coat as it dried. I brought her back up the driveway and gave her a bath – it was a little cold for it, but I knew the sun would dry her. She’s a beautiful reddish color with a blonde mane and tail, I sat in the front yard while she grazed in the sun.

The cats came to keep me company and we watched the stud horses play. When she was dry I put her in the barn with a few flakes of hay. I sat on the block near the tack room and listened to her munching. The wind blew the hay and dirt around in the hallway and I leaned back against the worn barn wood wall and listened to the birds sing.

 

 

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Curry Comb, Hard Brush, Soft Brush, Hoof Pick.

Today was one of those days where all you can do when you get home is change shoes and go to the barn.

The leaves have begun changing colors, just barely, the air has a definite cool snap to it. It was still light out when I made it to the farm, so the dogs and I went up the hill to let the chickens and ducks out to scratch among the leaves. I grabbed an apple on the way down and saw the horses grazing nearby.

Horses are always hungry, all the time. They always want food, it defines there life. I think this is why I like them so much – I feel like we have an understanding of each other. The point is anytime you walk in the barn and start moving buckets around, they show up. They are there and ready, ears pricked, waiting.

I spent the weekend out of town on what can only be summed up of a literal time machine through the past 3 places I have lived in my entire life, 18 years, 4 years, and 2 years. It was wonderful, but I had not seen Tug since last Friday, he was plenty muddy and had been somewhere between the barn and the creek bed that was full of burs.

Today was the kind of day where I needed to be outside. I needed to smell like hay and dirt and horses. Bone tired, and with the sun steadily going down, I didn’t have time to ride. But the great thing about having horses in your front yard is that you don’t always have to.

I caught Tug and led him to the barn, his harem looking on, waiting to eat. Since I had left him alone for more than 4 minutes, he had dried mud on his neck, shoulder, hip and legs from purposely rolling in it. Since high summer has passed, his coat has darkened to a rich brown, growing woolly from the cool nights.

I fed him my apple core, which he ate in two bites, and got a brush from the tack room. As the sunset turned the mountain ridge a deep orange, the crickets replaced the birds and I brushed my horse. My phone wasn’t ringing because it the battery was dead. It was laying in the passenger seat floor where it landed after someone pulled out directly in front of me, and I realized my rotors need replacing when the steering wheel shook out of my hands as I slammed on the brakes.

Tug’s mane was tangled with burs, but burs can’t ask questions. They aren’t a bank statement or a cell phone bill or an orange gas light. Burs are simple. I brushed his mane, it lays smooth across his neck on the right side, a brown so dark it’s almost black. He only had a few in his tail, so I brushed it with long, silky strokes until I could run my fingers through it.

I started brushing his coat and Tug rested on his back leg, his ears going slack and his lip drooping. For a tough cow horse, he loves being groomed. His eyes half close and he dozes off with a sigh. I sigh too. I loosen the dirt and dried mud with a rubber curry comb, then flick it away with a stiff brush. After that, I smooth his coat with a soft brush, using long, slow strokes until he shines. Sometimes I tell him about my day, or the car that pulled out in front of me, and sometimes I don’t say anything. If I don’t bring an apple down with me, I let him pick hay or loose grain from the dirt floor of the hall.

Our barn was built in the 40’s, it looks like it might fall down the hill at any point. One day, it might. But for now, it’s a beautiful, warm and dry tobacco barn. Tobacco barns have gaps between the boards near the aisle, they are very tall and crossed with rafters of old saplings and 2×4 boards. Our barn has vents above each door to let the wind through. It has a tin roof, a tack room with a wooden floor and definitely mice.

My Grandfather farmed tobacco on the land across the street from ours. Once he would harvest the big, broad leaves, He and my Aunt and my Mom would stake them on Tobacco Stakes, then hang them to dry from the rafters in the barn. There isn’t anything in the rafters now, but we keep horse feed in metal bins there, our square bales of hay, and some additional lumber we will need for a really big, project in the future.

I finished picking the loose dirt and grass from Tugs hooves and patted him on the neck. The black and white cat emerged from the hay, rubbing against Tugs legs, purring. Tug raised his head and we both looked out across the field, the sun slipping away and leaving the pale twilight. We watched the colt move off from grazing near his mom, where he took off like a shot. He galloped up the hill, around and back down, snorting and tossing his head.

Happy horses run. They are, for the moment, fed. They feel safe, they are happy and so they run. The colt began to stir everyone up, the big copper mare snorted and lifted her feet in a trot, her tail waving like a banner. The black mare looked on, soon the roan began trotting too.

When the air gets cool, the horses get excited. They feel frisky, acting like the colt, despite being lame in one foot or having a gash on their leg. The trot turned into a lope, which sent the horses bucking, skipping and whinnying into a gallop. They ran around and around the field, looking like the best kind of carousel, like a calendar that you can hear and feel.

Tug whinnied, wide awake now. We watched the mares and the colt gallop around and around, snorting and kicking and enjoying being alive. I led Tug to the gate and turned him lose. For half a beat, he reached his nose over to me, checking for any more apple. We both knew I was fresh out. He gathered himself and galloped away up the hill. Casey gave chase, feeling frisky too, and Tug bucked and kicked out, eating up the ground until he made it back to his herd.

The group loped across the top of the hill and down to the valley, rushing away as the sun disappeared. Casey came back, tongue lolling, and we walked up to the house. My stomach growled, I hadn’t eaten since whenever. The horses, chickens, ducks, cats and dogs were happy, it was time for dinner. The porch light was on, shining across the yard. The back door slammed behind me and Casey, she slurped up some water and trotted off, dripping a trail of water across the tile. The calico sleeping on the chair stretched and sauntered over, wrapping her tail around my leg.

It’s good to be at the farm.

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