farming, Uncategorized

“Just a little land”

I never pictured that I would end up living on a dead-end street. It’s only about 3/4ths of a mile long, and ends with a locked gate at the mountain’s shoulder. I’m not sure who owns that part of the mountain, but I do know they mainly use it for hunting. That, and the locked gate, does a good job of keeping people out. There are 6 other families on the road, there’s the big hay field with the red barn, and a pond full of lazy fish. It’s nice, it’s very quiet, and I like that. The people live out here because it’s way out here. I imagine, for the most part, that they like it too.

We have 7.74 acres around the house – where the garden is, the wood shed, the shop, and the chicken coop. The farthest fence line stops at the trees, but we own some of those too.  One day, I’d like to turn pigs loose on it, but that is still a few months away. Across our little dead-end road is the 11 acres with the old tobacco barn that now stores hay. The creek cuts across at a diagonal, bordered by trees. All in all, it’s a very nice piece of land.

My Uncle originally just had the 7+ acres, but when his mother Mary passed, he purchased the 11 so, in Sadie’s words, that “no one else could build on it.” I never got to meet Mary, but if I see her again, I want to hug her neck. I love looking out the front door and seeing horses in the front field. Watching the sunrise come up over the mountain, how it burns the fog away and turns the dew into little diamonds.

One of the only problems with our little dead-end road is trying to leave it. Turning right isn’t bad, but if you need to turn left and go to town, you really have to take your life into your own hands. On the corner of our property where the main road meets our barely-two-lane one is a big, rocky bluff. It’s a blind curve. Really the only way to almost not be killed is to turn the radio and the air off, roll your window down, and stick your ear out to try and listen for the oncoming traffic.

I’ve heard that they used to have a curved mirror at the corner, but after being shot out twice, it hasn’t been replaced since. Sadie told me they did have a small speed bump there, but people used to swerve around it. I mean which is worse, slowing down, or setting yourself up for a head-on collision?

Last winter, one of our neighbors was hit trying to head to town. Instead of talking to us about it, he filed a complaint with the county. Which then started a long series of events that I don’t feel like reliving. Long story short, surveyors arrived and spent several days measuring every angle of our little road.

Months passed, and we didn’t hear much of anything. To be honest, I completely forgot about it. That is, until they replaced the little bridge going over gap creek, and everyone on this side of it had to take a 20 minute detour all the way around. The inconvenient project inspired a co-worker to look at the Knox County road-works website, which slated the ‘Trundle Road Relocation’ to begin construction in August. I didn’t handle it well.

I had never worked with the county before – I didn’t know if I was going to wake up one day to bulldozers in the front pasture. I didn’t know if they were going to take the land from us, or buy it, or ask us to give it up. After several phone calls, and a few unnecessarily long voice-mails (from my end), I got a call back from the project manager. I will say, he is a very nice guy. I am sure he is used to getting long, panicky voice-mails from concerned land owners. He apologized for the confusion, told me the project had been pushed back to spring time, and that a negotiator would come out and discuss everything with me before any bulldozers arrived.

After that, I forgot about it again. We have been busy in the garden, Sadie has been working overtime, and it just got crazy. Last Friday, I took a long lunch break and met an old family friend at the barn so he could deliver some sawdust. Two truck-loads and a borrowed Bobcat later, we had the stalls cleaned, sawdust spread and piled, and a load of rich, fresh horse manure spread over the garden spot. I was sweaty, sawdust-y and beaming. What would have taken me all weekend, we finished up in less than an hour.

As I walked out to head back to work, I saw a small, shiny red car pull into the barn-lot. It’s pretty common around here to see people turn around in our lot or driveway, as soon as they realize that our little dead-end road isn’t going to take them where they want to go. But this guy didn’t turn around, he got out of the car, holding a phone to his ear. I wanted to holler ‘Are you lost??’ because he was dressed to the 9, and didn’t look like he knew where he was.

“Okay, here she comes. Yes, that’s fine. I will see you soon.” He hung up the phone and shut his car door. I walked over and he said “Are you Caroline? That was your Aunt, she his on her way over. I am with Knox County.” He pulled a folder from the back seat of his very fancy car and said “I’m the negotiator.”

Apparently, negotiator’s don’t call before hand to see if it’s a good time to negotiate. Or maybe this guy wasn’t expecting to find me home, covered in sawdust. Who knows. All I knew was that he was a suit, and I didn’t like him. I don’t mean to say I don’t like people who wear suits. My dad wears suits, and he is the greatest man I know. I mean this guy was a suit. He was looking around with little dollar signs coming out of his eyes.

He didn’t see the beautiful pile of sawdust, the rich fertilizer on the garden, the sleek horses in the field, none of that. This suit had very white, straight teeth, and grey hair slicked back. He wore a light blue button down shirt, dark blue pants, and leather shoes that matched his belt. On his hand that held the folder was some kind of class ring with a ruby stone in it. His whole outfit probably cost more than my monthly feed bill.

He didn’t shake my hand, he didn’t ask me how I was. He just whipped that folder open and showed me the completed plans of relocating Trundle Road away from the rocky bank and cutting across my front pasture land. I asked him a few questions about what he expected us to do with the livestock that grazes on that pasture, he said “well let’s walk down and look.” He seemed to prefer to stay on the pavement, so I walked in the grass. Me with my old boots, my comfy pair of jeans that have maybe one more good work day left in them, and a tank top that has a tear in the bottom seam.

We walked to the corner and he pointed out how dangerous that blind curve was, and told me how important it was to Knox County to find a solution. I let him talk. He showed me where they would need to use a little over a quarter of an acre to complete this project, and assured me that they would put the fence up when they were done with construction. The suit told me that “it would be an even swap” – the county would take some of our pasture, but give us the land where the old road was, extending our front yard by 8006 square feet.

“So do we get paid for the land that you will use?” I asked the suit. His smile faltered a little, and he said “well no, this would be an even swap.” “But that’s not even,” I replied. “You’re taking my pasture and giving me more front yard.” He flashed that colgate smile again and told me that Knox County “really wanted to resolve this safety issue.” I told him I understood that, but we had livestock that depended on the front pasture, and I really didn’t want to give it up. Surely there must be another solution? A stop sign, perhaps?

Then he looked at me and said something I will never forget. He said “It’s just a little bit of land.” I looked back and said “Sir, this is my life.”

The suit said something else after that, but I wasn’t listening. I’m sure he is very good at his job, I am positive that Knox County works hard on improvement projects all over the area, and I support that 100%. But the suit didn’t get it, he doesn’t understand that pasture land, with access to water and shelter, is money in the bank for me and Sadie.

About that time, Sadie pulled up. The suit told her he was “the negotiator” and I think it took her 2.5 seconds to realize that he was a suit, and not a farmer. She asked him a few questions, some that I had thought of and some I had not. The suit waved his hand around, showed us the plans again, and told us he didn’t have very many answers because he was just “the negotiator.” A few minutes after that, we all realized that we weren’t getting anywhere, so suit turned to walk back to his car.

Sadie had to get back to work, and so did I. He gave me copies of the plans with his card attached, just in case I had any questions. The suit told me he would be in touch and would call me next week. I wanted to say “don’t bother” but I felt that was a little too dramatic. As he pulled away, one of our neighbors, Mr. Clark, was driving down. He stopped and pointed a thumb at the red car and said “who was that?

Mr. Clark is a great guy, he’s a great farmer. He has alpacas and sells their wool at the farmers market. If someone broke into my house one night, or I ran into a tree or something, I could call Mr. Clark and he would show up. I told Mr. Clark that fancy pants was a suit who wanted to negotiate taking our pasture for nothing. Mr. Clark didn’t like that idea very much at all, which made me feel like maybe I wasn’t overreacting, that maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

Anyway, all that to say, is that there are farmers, and there are not. We need both in this world – I’m not trying to say that Mr. Suit is a bad person or he’s evil or he’s out to take all our land and leave us with nothing. I’m just saying that he is a suit, and may not ever be able to understand how land is really all we have. It’s what makes us. He may love class rings and new folders and land development print outs as much as I love spread fertilizer and a well-tilled garden spot. I’m sure Mr. Suit has a very nice office and has worked very hard to be successful. I don’t have an office, but I work hard too, and it’s a shame that he couldn’t quite see that.

He hasn’t called me yet this week, but Sadie and I agreed that we are going to politely tell him “no thank you.”


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.