Good Enough is Perfect

Famous sustainable farmer and author, Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, has a quote that goes something like “when it comes to farming, good enough is perfect.” This is a piece of advice I am desperately trying to take to heart, although it is hard for me. Historically I have had an overachiever, straight “A”, quasi-perfectionist mentality, and when I see weeds growing amongst my vegetables I have an urge to pull out every single one. Which is completely ridiculous, because by the time I finished weeding the whole farm, I’d have to start all over again. And that would be fine, if the only job I had to do was weed all day. Thankfully, there are a million other things to be done, so I am learning how to best prioritize my tasks.

Every day we get to the farm in the morning and start with animal chores. Usually this involves moving the chicken “tractors” to fresh pasture, a process we now have down pretty well (although occasionally a chicken or two sneak out and we have to do some wrangling). We feed all the chickens, give them fresh water, and feed and water the pigs. We check on the goats to make sure they are all accounted for, something we never worried about much until one of our wethers (young, castrated male) went mysteriously missing, which just about broke my heart. Then we set about starting our other farm tasks, which usually means weeding in my case, and working on the tiny house in Andrew’s case.

Other than the daily animal feeding, our schedule is pretty varied and loose. Usually what happens is we discover something that needs fixing right away, and all of the things on our “to-do” list get bumped. For example we might discover that the goats’ hooves need trimming, and so we’ll spend a couple hours catching them and trimming hooves. Recently we decided that the pigs had outgrown their pen, so Andrew spent two days building them a “pig palace” and a new enclosure, putting our own abode on hold. There’s a kind of feeling on the farm that we’re always putting out fires, or staying one step ahead of imminent disaster. At first I worried that this was due to our novice status, but I’m starting to see that this is the nature of farming. You are at the mercy of the elements, trying to harness nature and encourage the “good” parts while avoiding the “bad.” Sometimes there’s not much to be done but panic, scramble around fixing things for a few hours, and then stand in front of a patch of overgrown weeds, wheezing while silently cursing your aching back.

Our farm operates as “CSA” based, which stands for Community Supported Agriculture. What this means is that people pay up front for a weekly box of produce, and that box is expected to be varied and plentiful. It’s wonderful because it allows community members to become a real part of the farm; in our case all boxes are picked up at the farm so people can come meet us and see where their food comes from. The pressure is on to make sure we are providing high-quality produce with a good variety in order to keep our members satisfied. I was beginning to have some anxiety about the approaching deadline when our farmer neighbors stopped by to have a chat and see how we were doing. They were impressed by how far along many of our vegetables are, and reassured me that we were going to have very happy customers. I feel relieved about that now, although we will have to work hard to make sure the weeds don’t strangle out some of our younger crops before they have a chance to get established. Part of the challenge of farming is timing; you need to ensure that you have harvestable crops every week throughout the season, and that you always have a good variety in rotation.

Our other impending deadline is our first chicken slaughter, which is only one week away. We have been talking to lots of experienced people, watching videos, reading books and blogs, and learning as much as we can about the process. Unfortunately the only real way to know what it’s going to be like is to actually do it, so we mostly just have to wait until the day comes and then dive right in. For the most part I am excited about this. I believe that it is important to understand that a chicken breast is actually a piece of meat that came from a living creature, and to be able to slaughter the chickens we raised from the day after they hatched is something I will take pride in.  Although I do think that pulling intestines out of a still-warm carcass with my bare hands may take some getting used to!

In the meantime, we will keep chasing our goats, laughing at the pigs, enjoying the delicious young zucchinis and beets, and marveling at the scenery. Oh, and when the rain lets up long enough for the ground to dry out, we will get back to hacking at those weeds!

The Only Guarantee in Life

Compared to my last post, which was a celebration of all things wonderful in regards to finding the love of my life, this post may seem a little macabre. Working on a farm means that we are responsible for creating life. We plant seeds and provide water and nutrients so that they may grow big and strong and plentiful. We feed, pamper, and nourish our livestock so that they will also grow big and strong (and tasty!). We are now well into spring, and life brims at every turn. Flowers are blooming, bees are buzzing, and our plants and animals are growing in leaps and bounds. This is amazing to witness and I am so thrilled to be a part of something so fundamental. There is, of course, a flip side to all of the energetic, tangible, vibrant life that abounds on the farm.

Death on the farm is not a rare occurrence. In the few months we have worked here we have become quite accustomed to several forms of death. Rodents die almost every day on the farm, some by our own hands. Even more succumb to Zephyr, whose favorite hobby is digging up their nests and toying with the young. Rats, mice, and rabbits have all met this fate (although the weasels are proving too smart for him!). We have also had more than a handful of chicken deaths. Some die as chicks for various reasons, whether they are sick, or too weak to fight for food, or they get crushed by the others when it’s cold. We have also had larger chickens die expectantly. But still…when it’s a chicken, it’s not so hard to get over.

A few weeks ago, we had to put down one of our pigs. She had only been in our custody for a few days, and was sickly from the beginning. We were fortunate in that we had not really formed any kind of bond with her yet, but still. A pig is an intelligent creature, and pulling the trigger is no easy feat. And yet, all five living pigs are destined for slaughter. (I will have to come to terms with this, especially since I plan on eating some of the delicious pork I had a hand in raising!) And today a lovable little calf named Lucy died. She was bottle fed and hand-raised by Eric’s twelve-year-old son, and it was incredibly difficult to see him struggle and mourn this loss. Unfortunately this is a big part of creating life. Every living creature must die, and sometimes they die when we do not want them to.

All of the death on the farm makes me think about my own mortality, and how we as humans cope with this. Scratch that. We as Americans (or other Westerners). We have, in my opinion, a seriously messed up perspective on death in this country. We push it away and ignore it all our lives, until BAM there it is, in the form of a lost loved one. We avoid thinking about death. We avoid participation in any death rites (let the funeral home and undertakers deal with that!). Most of us avoid preparing for death unless we are given a prognosis and we know our time is limited. With all of this avoidance, it’s no wonder death is such a tragedy to us. We are slammed with the emotions all at once, and at the same time are stuck dealing with the logistics of planning, and paying exorbitantly, for a funeral. There is no real closure in this process either, other than maybe throwing a handful of dirt into a grave and walking away.

When I was just out of high school one of my equally young friends passed away. His family wanted some kind of closure, so they requested to watch his coffin be buried completely. This, unfortunately, was performed by a backhoe. You can imagine how traumatic it was for us all to watch noisy, heavy machinery bury our friend in the earth. In other cultures family is directly involved in the funeral rites. In India, Hindu family members bathe, clothe, and arrange the body of their loved ones before they perform the cremation themselves, in a specific way according to custom. This seems much more logical to me. It allows the family to grieve over the body, and be personally connected to the process of letting go.

Recently I was listening to a podcast in which a cool, young mortician was interviewed. She has established something called the Order of the Good Death, which was created in response to the screwy Western cultural fears about death. Here is a link to their mission:

I cannot say that I am “mightier than thou” when it comes to matters of death. I have not delved deeply enough into this topic to have completely resolved my fears and anxieties…after all cultural knowledge is hard to unlearn. I am excited to know that there are potential options out there that do include more direct involvement with the death of loved ones, and I am hoping to expand my knowledge on the subject over time.

In the meantime I do know that I would like a “green burial,” where my body can be placed into the ground, uninhibited by concrete or polished wood. Matter is matter is matter…my energy is neither created nor destroyed but merely transferred. Let those worms use me to create new life! Who knows, maybe someday my energy will wind up feeding the spinach that finds its way onto your plate. What could be more significant than participating directly in the great Circle of Life?

I’m curious to know about your thoughts: please share in the comments!

Greenthumb Greenhorns

There is an inevitable moment that occurs when the people we are talking to figure out how inexperienced we are. For the first five minutes we are usually able to pass ourselves off as seasoned farmers; “Oh yes, we have lots of starts already in our green house, and the seedlings in the hoop houses are coming along nicely!” “We trimmed our goats’ hooves yesterday…it was a piece of cake!” And then, “We’re going to have a few pigs on the farm soon!” It was this piece of news that made our new acquaintance (a truck driver for the mill who seems to have ample agriculture experience) stop short.

“Oh, so you’re hog people?!”

“Well, we will be soon!”

“Oh.” <pause> “You’ve never raised ‘em before?”

“Nope! But we’re doing a lot of research!”

“Hahaha. Hah. Haha. Good luck to you!”

In the end he recommended a book for us to check out, and talked a lot about how smart pigs are and how likely they are to escape. (Which is no problem, we are quite used to our animals escaping. This past weekend while we were away the goats seemed to learn that the electric fence really isn’t all that bad, and now wander in and out of the enclosure at will. Some part of me thinks Zephyr sneaks off at night to show them how it’s done).

The nice thing is, when people realize we are coming at this from ground zero they generally think it’s great, and are willing to share some bit of wisdom or tell stories about when they first started out. There is certainly a big difference between “book knowledge” and “practical knowledge.” We have a lot of books, and have been researching as much as possible, but the solutions in the books don’t always apply. More often than not when I mention I read how to do something to Eric, he will politely point out that whatever I read is in fact completely impractical and it should be done this way instead. I am hopeful that after a full season on the farm I will have my own memory bank of knowledge to draw from, so I can consult the books when I am stumped, rather than scanning through them every day!

Things have been progressing at the farm very rapidly, and I am anxious, excited, and nervous for the real “season” to begin. Our cute little chicks are now huge, awkward, fairly unattractive “teenagers,” and will be heading down to the farm this week. Eric also dropped off our egg layers down at the farm, so we now have around 150 little peepers to keep happy and healthy. This week our pigs will arrive, and pretty soon we will be getting ready to welcome some turkey chicks to the mix! On top of that we are still working on irrigation, mowing and tilling the fields, planting seeds and starts, weeding ad infinitum, and waiting for the weather to finally decide it’s springtime!

The tiny house project is coming along, and with a roof, windows, and a door it actually feels cozy and home-like! We (ie: mostly Andrew) have a few more major things to accomplish before we can move in, but we are hopeful that within a few weeks will be down there, falling asleep and waking up to the cacophony of animal sounds that abound on the farm. In addition to our livestock, we are frequently treated to calls and flyovers by the resident geese, ducks, bald eagles, hawks, herons, sparrows, robins, woodpeckers, (and more!) that call the farm home.

On a side note, in case any of you are wondering, my grandmother is doing exceedingly well down in Tucson. It was really hard leaving her, not knowing exactly how she was going to get along since her health wasn’t as good as it could be, but when I speak to her on the phone I am so relieved to hear how much better she is. She is walking (although often with a walker), is trying to make new friends, enjoys the pool in the retirement home (that I never knew existed while I was there!), and sounds genuinely happy and healthy. I am looking forward to celebrating her 90th birthday next January with the entire family… and what a year to celebrate!

Speaking of years to celebrate, April 28th will mark our first wedding anniversary. This has been the most unexpected, adventurous, momentous, stupendous, love-filled year of my life! From living happily with my sweetheart in sunny San Diego, getting married in Joshua Tree National Park, traveling 15,000 miles with a teardrop trailer, spending some difficult months apart, and moving to Washington to work on an organic farm, we really have done it all! And you know what? We’re just getting started!