Tiny but Mighty

If you spend much time with me talking about grazing and the woods, you’ll hear all about the mutiflora rose brush, giant swaths of scratchy thorns that choke out woodland grasses and new oak and hickory. I’ve mowed huge tracts of our land in the past, diligently waiting until July and August, which, according rearch, should kill off more than 70 percent by next year. Other family helped with the mowing back there, but now, more five or six years later, little brushes are popping up, especially, I realize now, in the fields where I kept back the buffalo last summer. This time, it’s less of in-over-your-head  problem and more of of  waist-high problem. I try to remember this in a year where everything on the farm seems to be going wrong– the barn needing a new foundation, pipes under concrete leaking and needing to be rerouted, Dad having more trouble handling things, the bison herd dynamics making them so much harder to move or predict patterns… this summer has felt like the universe is pulling away from sweet rhythms, turning things kattywampus as if in preparation for what’s coming next, but mowing starts to feel like progress. Visible progress, large sections of woods opened up, finding trees I didn’t know were back there- linden trees and white oaks- and one old ancient oak too wide to wrap my arms around. I find sections of the multiflora in the woods that have never been cut, too, huge, high swaths that I slowly push though, certain  there’s a fallen tree buried in the thick of bushes… I did not hit a tree, but I felt the ZAP, the sting–and then another–on my elbow, on my neck. I don’t know what they were–like tiny hornets–and surely they were fighting to the death.  I jumped out of the skidsteer, dodging the buzz, then another! The motor still running, I had to go back… Six welts by the time I moved away. Generally, I’m not that worried about yellow jackets, seems like I take on a few stings a season. They hurt, I yell, curse a little and keep going. But these fiery baby wasps–native bees?–were something else. I moved to another section of timber, but after an hour, the welt on my hip was the size of a baseball, my arms were prickly in a strange rash… Never underestimate the power of something so tiny… one or two mighty warriors sent the giant machine away… I won’t be returning to this corner of the woods anytime soon…

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The barn is the heart of our farm and our history, the place where Dad played circus with his brother, where the hand-hewn timbers and the dust have melded with the yellow light and time stands still. The Iowa Barn Foundation describes barns as the cathedrals of the Midwest. To sit in the haymow and look up feels like that, and yet also feels snug as a bug in a rug, like a shelter from the storm, like I’m climbing the haymow ladder to swing on the ropes and searching hay hole shadows for new kittens all over again, Dad’s radio sharing the evening news while he milks the cow below.

We got rid of our dairy cow sometime in the mid-nineties and started buying milk from the store. These days we make big round bales stored in a pole shed and mostly the barn stands as a reminder of days long ago, but it still serves as protection for our cattle on the really hot days or really cold days, or when a new calf and mother needs a little extra love.

Last summer a storm blew in that seemed about as bad as any, though not worse. But when I got to the farm, one of the towering old pines in the windbreak was snapped in half–luckily just in front of the farm house, not on it. We lost six trees in that storm, plus several that blew down in our pastures, but it wasn’t until two days later that I went into the barn and found the ceiling beam broken. We called insurance right away, who called an engineering company, who took a long time but confirmed just before Christmas that the damage was storm related. I thought that we would just be replacing the beam, but when the contractor looked at the barn, he recognized a tilt in the beams in the haymow above, and the way the joists were pulling apart. The very basic problem is this: the high winds pushed on the barn leaving the supporting timber beams askew. Beyond the broken beam repair, the barn needs to be straightened. But the bottom half of the barn is concrete blocks put in during the 30s or 40s, back when Grandma and Grandpa hired a man to cut off the bottom barn boards by hand. When they put in the concrete foundation, they were marrying something that gives with something that won’t. The contractor can pull the wooden beams back into place, “listening” to the wood and encouraging it to bend, giving the wood a new memory little by little, one day at a time. But the concrete blocks, now brittle and crumbling in places, will not withstand the pressure created by the pulling and moving wooden beams.

So we’re left with an insurance claim that will pay for the straightening, but if we don’t replace the foundation we run the risk of the barn collapsing when we straighten the timbers. And the new bricks and new foundation will cost as much as a new house.

I’m sick about this. I’ve paid insurance and kept enough in savings to cover a new well, a barn full of hay burned down, or enough to start a small herd should some catastrophe wipe out our livelihood. The barn is standing like nothing is really wrong, but really we’re just on borrowed time.

But for now we’re doing this: The broken beam has been fixed. Now we empty the barn so the contractor and his team can install supporting cables to pull the slumping sides of the barn in. This at least, will give it some support. And it buys me time to explore funding options, Lord willing that we don’t get high winds.

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The Bison Harvest, Part 2

You’ll hear the other bison grunting when he drops. Some will crowd around, sniffing and nudging. Some, sensing danger in the moment dance aggressively, tails up, signaling to watch out, to back down. Some bison continue to eat hay as if nothing has happened. 

It’s not always perfect. There have been a times when I’ve rushed my shot, when the first shot is not enough, and my heart aches for days. I come back to the oaks and the earth, the grass, the herd.  I cannot give my animals a thousand miles to roam as they would have hundreds of years ago, but I give them a world that’s akin to it. You’ve heard me talk about it before, following the rhythms of nature here, grazing in river bottoms and prairie remnants. These are the last moments for my herd.

A bison is calm with what is familiar, especially in wide open spaces. A bison wants to run, to get away more than it wants to fight, so that elbow room is essential.  A bison in a confined space is wild with stress, unpredictable and dangerous. This means separating a bison from the herd, moving it into a sorting pen and loading it into trailer will always be stressful–for them and for us, muscle hitting trailer walls, moving faster than you can think, shutting the door on strength and fierce momentum, panic and horns.  Beyond the experience of the bison, the stress of an animal at slaughter will impact the quality and flavor of its meat.  Temple Grandin’s research has shown the stress of an animal even several days before slaughter matters.

When the last of the bison herd gallops towards the woods, we step down on the ground. I rest my hand on the bison, warm hair, muscle and bone. Say a prayer. Then get on with the job at hand: Lifting the bison with the tractor loader, a cut to bleed it out, then loading it into the truck to take to the locker.

In 2020, thirteen meat processing plants had closed when the news reported on meat shortages. 

Three hundred million people live in the United States.

Thirteen meat processing plants. 

How these huge plants handled the health and safety of their workers during the Covid pandemic is another story for another day. Today I would like to talk about numbers.

Tyson’s, a pork packing plant just an hour south of our ranch, was one of the plants that closed. They employ almost three thousand people. They closed when half of their workforce was infected. The plant slaughters about 20,000 hogs a day. 

Beef plants are much smaller in Iowa, relatively speaking. Combined, the top three beef plants in Iowa only slaughter about 1,800 beef a day. A large plant in Kansas or Nebraska will process about 6,000 cattle in one day. 

We live in a world of assembly lines, of mass production, where quality doesn’t matter so much, but you cannot deny it has made many things very affordable. So it’s not surprising that most of our food also comes from a factory line, because this is how a company makes more profits, and this is how we get cheap meat. 

But that’s not how we do it here. We work with several meat processors in the area, mostly at Janesville and Ionia Lockers. At every locker here in Iowa, I’ve worked directly with the owner of the business. The owner answers the phone when I make a locker appointment. It’s the owner who greets me at the locker’s back door with the bison, there to do the hardest work, muscle and chains pulling 1200 pounds from the truck.  Talk about the backbone of America: back breaking work, hand sharpening their knives, bending and skinning and butchering and hoisting on to the rail. Two men, one animal at a time. We discuss butcher cuts for every order individually. Ribeyes or rib roast, specialty cuts like tri-tip or bison cheeks.

Artisans of a time gone by. 

We will harvest ten bison this year.

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The Bison Harvest Part 1

The harvest goes like this: we wait for the cool temperatures of late fall into winter to harvest. I awake in the early morning to head into the field at first light. We roll a bale of hay for the herd stretched out in a long line to keep the bison from clustering, then wait for the moment he is alone, the moment I can best make my shot. It’s a good day to die. I carry this with me into the field, into my prayers, into my life. That every day should be a good day to die. No regrets. No stone left unturned. In this place, in this moment, I’m stepping into the lifecycle of this planet, just as you are, just as everyone else. The sun rises and sets. The star spin in the sky, the grass grows, the grass dies, feeding what follows. For this BISON, every day before this one has been, to the best that I can manage, a good day for that bison in my herd. Sunshine and trees, grass, open sky, acorns and clover, wind, wallows, and the herd. 

If this doesn’t sit well with you, I give you this: driving through Yellowstone, past a lake, a lone bison cow. I don’t know how to convey the agony of seeing a bison on its own. All I can say is that the fight for bison to stay with the herd is extraordinary. To see her alone broke my heart, with every rib, every spine jutting out in loneliness and suffering, muscle withered, head bowed. Would she close her eyes and be finished? Would she be torn apart by wolves?This was the moment my romance of roaming wild and free cracked.  There’s a truth I’ve always known, Nature can be brutal. That, within the confines of my fences or here on the mountain, nature is at once beautiful and terrifying, a struggle for survival. The wildebeest dragged into the lion’s den. A mother licking off the blood off her sweet cubs. Who do we root for? Why do we feel we have to choose? The life force on this planet marches forward. The moon rises. The stars burn. The lioness purrs. The herd grazes, the wind shifts. Leaves fall on frozen ground. Mice gather nuts for winter. 

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This is the real world, indifferent, unburdened.

I come in from my walk, flushed cheeks, cold nose. I hear Rachel Ray and audience applause. Cyber Monday. Tips and tricks, deals and steals. This page from James Galvin keeps running through my head ~ The real world is the island. ~

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The Figur’ Four Tree

Nothing lasts forever. Even when we think it will. This oak, growing at the crest of our creek crossing for as long as anybody around here can remember is “the figure 4 tree”. We believe this giant was a Native American sign tree, one low branch formed a perfect right angle. That branch was broken off when I was a young girl. (You can see the knob on the front of the tree.) The Figure Four Tree has always been a sacred spot in our woods, connecting us to memories of the past. This too, shall pass. With tears. Goodbye old friend.

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When I found this ugly kitty on my doorstep, she was eating onions scraps from the compost pile, looking much worse for wear than this pic. (Insert multiple scathing comments about folks who dump cats here.) She’s has a tough and adventurous spirit though. She disappeared, and I thought she was dead, but noo… she found her way to the farm, ingratiated herself into the scrappy barn cat mix, AND somehow convinced our tiny momma cat to let her nurse off her one good nipple. The tiny cat’s kitten does not seem to mind sharing.

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Planing To Fail

SO. When I first started stacking bales, I lined them up tall and straight and perfect. And then they “settled” over night, shlumping and tipping over, and some stacks came crashing down. Dad taught me to plan on them falling, to arrange them so they will tip in the right direction, into the wall or into each other. I’m better at stacking bales now than he is, though looking at these crooked bales, it might not seem like it. Planning to fail..crooked and leaning and not straight or perfect…I think about it every time I stack bales, how it’s a metaphor that can carry us through life…

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Buffalo and Cats and Catepillars and Cows

When asked what I love best about working on our ranch, I’m inclined to say fixing fence, mostly because I love the physical labor and being outdoors in the shade of our woods. (Though I should admit by the end of my fencing project this fall, I may not have said that.)  I give this answer, though, because it’s easier than capturing the very best part of this gig.   The best part?   It’s hard to define.  I would say I love the animals, but that makes me sound like I’m a fifth grade girl who likes cats and ponies.  I do like cats and ponies.   And there’s a beautiful story in loves like that.   But that is not what I mean. What I mean is “what I love best” is more nuanced than that.   And I don’t know if it can be encompassed in a verb or in a task.   It’s watching the animals, interacting with them, seeing windows into their worlds, watching their stories unfold.  All of them. Large and small, buffalo and cats and caterpillars and cows.

Some days, it’s just a glimpse of something beautiful: an eagle’s flight across my path, meadow larks landing in freshly raked hay, or the tiny fawn running across the prairie when I was mowing multiflora rose.  Other times it’s the buffalo at my side in the skidsteer, coming curiously to check out the places I’ve just mowed, or it’s watching new buffalo cow as she progresses through the year, first fretting about her, thin and clearly stressed, when she joined the herd, and then finnnnnnally watching her discover the Vitalicks tub. Then, over time, watching her recover faster than I ever would have predicted, surprising us with a calf the next spring.  (Ridiculous!) I often say that one of the most powerful and beautiful gifts of being a farmer is the intensity of our experiences.   In most people’s lives, someone will experience births, deaths, tragedy and triumphs over the course of ten years.   On the farm, we live out those experiences in a season.   Some of the stories end in triumph: a crisis averted, a Hereford calf finally suckling on its own; and some break my heart: finding the little fawn who was caught in the mower, then later watching the mother returning at dusk, still lingering even as I approached, looking, I assume, for her baby.

Of course, maybe that’s not how it goes.   Maybe they’re not feeling what I’m feeling.  I may just be creating my own stories here, applying my emotions to her world, but still, I piece those stories together, and they create quite a life here on the farm.  In stressful moments with Dad, when communication gets hard, when both of us reach that quiet, aggravated-and-in-total-disagreement moment, those stories break the tension.   I’ll look down at the chickens crowding around us as we try to change a tire and say, “No, you can’t help,”   or I’ll look over at Grey Boy, our rolly polly farm cat contentedly stretched out on the porch bench, and I’ll say, “Grey Boy seems pretty upset about all this.”  And in that total-disagreement moment, it’s enough to laugh and to find a way back into a comfortable place, a place we where we share the same feelings and we’re on the same side.

Dad is an old guy, classic old farmer, certainly not one to express his emotions.  But there’s the day I stopped in at the farmhouse and discovered Grey Boy (the barn cat) stretched out on the desk, Dad working around him.  Peanut Butter, the house cat, rested behind the computer screen, and Ellie the dog (who is supposed to stay in the kitchen) was lying on the floor at his feet.

These are the moments I love and appreciate my dad the most.  Early on, when we were just figuring out how to work together in the loader, I was up there with the chainsaw cutting grapevines from the windmill. (How we came to learn each other’s approaches to using the loader and the chainsaw is a story for another day.) But on that day, up in the loader, as I cut a swath of branches away, I saw a tiny pale green tree frog on the verrrrry end of a grape vine, holding on to the quivering branch with his little suction cup fists.  If I used the chainsaw on the neighboring branch, he would easily be shaken off,  plummeting fifteen feet below.  And so I reached out to save him, and when I motioned to Dad, he saw the frog and lowered me down to the ground without a question.   In that moment I appreciated him so much, thinking about so many dads who wouldn’t be that understanding, or value the tree frog just as much as I do.

As the new year approaches, and I reflect on the last year, and the lists of moments goes on, none long enough for a story, but beautiful and sacred all the same:

Sitting in the skidloader, watching a bright green inchworm crawl across my knee. A buffalo heifer shakes her tail in mating season, just a little flirting with a  bull who curls his lips and follows. Seventeen turkeys chicks running across the hay field with a moma turkey on my the way to the farm.  The big buffalo bull eating an apple from my hand the first time, coming up to the truck as scared as the tiny tree frog.  A baby buffalo romping laps around her mother before a storm.    It’s been a beautiful year on the farm, filled with the roller coasters of births, life, and death, and I’m grateful to be a witness to each moment.

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Early Spring

A perfectly placed walnut??

I took these pictures while walking in the county park just across from our place.   Spring was barely peeking out, but I could finally smell the DIRT thawing, I was squishing in the mud where melted snow had been. And robins! Such relief. And just around the the bend, on the trail next to the lake, on a brushy branch I found…a walnut.   A walnut perfectly balanced in the crook of a scrub tree.…absolutely no walnut trees around.  I didn’t see or hear the squirrel, and I tried to imagine the moments and possible stories leading up to this tiny present in the tree.   And just as I was thinking about sharing these moments on the blog, in the middle of bright yellow-green leaves and squishy mud and twittering birds telling us they are alive and back!….my cell phone rang.   Dad wanted to let me know that our closest neighbor Art had gone to the hospital.

Art and his wife Loraine are in thier 80s, and memories of them are part of the landscape of my childhood. He was the neighbor we traded work with, helping harvests or borrowing equipment. A strong tall Sweede, man of few words, Art was the handiest guy I knew.  Art and Loraine married later in life and never had children. I suppose that early on some of our neighbor relationship developed when Art needed a second hand, but mostly, it seems it was Art that helped us. Another neighbor said, “If Art couldn’t fix it, you were in trouble.”

Art in the 1970s

I remember him most baling hay for us, small square bales popping into the hay rack in the field south of our house. At seven or eight or ten years old, it would be my job to take Art his “lunch,” a midafternoon snack while making the rounds, maybe cookies or a ham sandwich, and always, not matter how hot it was, a thermos of coffee.

Art has been in the rest home for about two years now, his wife Loraine visiting him every single day. She packs a lunch for him because he hates the food. Of course he hates everything about it, mostly because it isn’t home. When he first arrived the rec director asked him what he most enjoyed doing.

“You can’t do anything to help me,” he told her. “My favorite thing is being on the tractor.”

“Well, she told him, “you never know, once I was able to get some out here in the parking lot…”

“No,” he insisted. “My favorite thing is to be on my tractor out in the field.”

Home from the rest home for the weekend, saying hello to Buddy

It’s been a difficult few years, and when we got to the hospital to see Art, to say goodbye, Loraine and their great-niece Becky were there. He was unresponsive. Heavy labored breaths. Looking at him, but really seeing memories of overalls and tinkering on tractors, welding masks and a quiet nod to say hello, I wanted to say what never gets said. He’s just been there. It seemed funny to give him a hug. Art was not the huggy type. But awkwardly, I did anyway. And holding his hand, listening to his labored breathing, all I can tell you is what a strong, peaceful presence I felt, as if he’d left his weak, frustrating body, as if his spirit was already back on his tractor, making plans for spring.  He died a few hours later.

As my sister Mary said, “I’m not surprised he died this time of year. Sitting there, knowing it was planting time, looking out and knowing you wouldn’t be out there. I know I’d feel the same way.”

Ditches burning

The days have passed since Art’s funeral.  It’s now violet and asparagus season, deep green grass season. Our yards have been mowed a few times, and buffalo are ignoring big round hay bales in the corner of the pasture, preferring the new grass. We burned the ditches along the house, the fire carrying away the old to make way for the new.  The buffalo surprising me that day, coming down in the smoke and walking along the field where the fire spread from the ditch into the cornstalks.  Even they sense the new life that will come from burning what was before.  This is Spring. This morning, the lilac and scrub oak, the raspberry bushes, the wild plumbs along the fences are busted out in leafy greens, as excited as anything to know it’s warm again. And I laugh at the way the old trees, the oak and the hickory, are NOT out yet, the big trees always holding back til the very last, as if they are saying in their old-man voices, “hmmm…maybe it’s spring, but we’ll see…”

Another season

But eventually even the old man trees will come to life, and as spring settles into summer, I see Art each new turn of green, in the tractors driving by to plant, in the stoic old trees. I remember the strong, peaceful presence of a life changing seasons. Art was not a huggy guy, but he was a kind, much-loved man. I hope you are watching from winds above, and I hope you know how much you are missed.

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