The white blooms of these trees punctuate the landscape as spring begins to take over winter. My oldest son shared the following poem with me and from this day forward the Dogwood will mean so much more.
The Dogwood Tree
When Christ was on earth, the dogwood grew To a towering size with a lovely hue. Its branches were strong and interwoven And for Christ’s cross, its timbers were chosen
Being distressed at the use of the wood Christ made a promise which still holds good: “Not ever again shall the dogwood grow To be large enough for a tree, and so
Slender and twisted it shall always be With cross-shaped blossoms for all to see. The petals shall have bloodstains marked brown And in the blossom’s center a thorny crown.
All who see it will think of Me, Nailed to a cross from a dogwood tree. Protected and cherished this tree shall be A reflection of all of My agony.
As Mr. J and I moved about the farm with morning chores, we heard a persistent low “mooooo” from Dude, our steer. His bawling tells us that there is not enough grass in his pasture, and he is expecting us to resolve the situation. Our grass is greening, but we are not at the spring flush so we decide to haul out the last roll of hay from the barn to keep our small herd happy for another week.
This roll of hay weighs about 600 pounds and requires some maneuvering to get it from the barn to the bed of the truck. But we have polished our technique over this past winter and work well as a team.
I drive the truck to the pasture, position it at the top of the hill, then Mr. J gives the roll of hay a heave-ho setting it on an unrolling path down the hill.
We then walk the length of this unrolled hay to spread it out.
While tossing hay here and there I pause and think:
Who would have thought.
Who could have predicted twelve years ago when we bought this truck that we would use it to haul rolls of hay to our cattle. In Tennessee.
Who would have thought we would be right here, right now, with this truck, in this field.
We had a vision when we bought the truck. We had a plan for our lives.
We knew we would pay it off and keep it for many years. It needed to be able to carry our three boys comfortably into adulthood.
We wanted the option of towing a trailer for camping.
And maybe at some point we would need the four-wheel drive to go off road.
Our truck has done this and more.
This truck has served us well.
It has carried soccer gear, ski equipment, and surfboards.
It has hauled loads of compost and fruit trees for my gardening exploits.
It has worn the license plates of California, Virginia, Nevada, and now Tennessee.
When we bought this truck in 2011, we could not have anticipated being on a farm in the South. It never occurred to us that Mr. J could earn a living working remotely with a computer and phone. Who would have thought that this truck would one day haul pigs and sheep to our own homestead or pull felled trees out of the woods.
God has a plan. He nudges. He guides. And if you are lucky, you can see a few steps ahead on your journey. But most of the time we just bumble along.
When I look back, I can see how we were gently positioned to be right here. Right now.
Ivan was born three hundred yards behind where he lives today. The road is named Clarence Lee Rd, after his father. His family home was one of the first two in Morgan County, but it has long since burned down. That’s ok because it didn’t have running water. Ivan didn’t live in a home with running water until after he returned from the war.
Ivan’s father, Clarence was a good man – an even better father.
I am learning to keep bees from Ivan, so we have lot’s of time for stories as we assemble hives and frames in his cozy workshop. It is here that I am learning about bees and “old ways” of doing things.
Ivan said his father always planted potatoes in February.
February? Really? When?
Well, when the weather dried out for a few days. Then they would have new potatoes to eat in early spring.
Huh. I have potatoes that are sprouting. Let’s give this a try.
So, I did.
We cleared the weeds remaining in the garden from last fall, piled them in a 12 foot low point in the garden and burned them. I then added some compost, placed my potatoes on top, and covered with more compost. Finally, a layer of broken down straw that the chickens have been working over.
Will we have potatoes in the spring? I have no idea. But I have nothing to lose. All the materials were on the farm and the potatoes I planted were inedible. The only thing it cost me was time.
Here’s to learning the “old ways” and giving them a try.
Last year I took advantage of a state program called Tennessee Tree Day. This program provides the opportunity to purchase native saplings at very low prices. We have a goal of adding tress to our current pastures and this seemed the perfect fit for our goals.
We picked up the saplings at our local extension office. Planted them the next day. Mulched around the base with wood chips and provided protection from wildlife with some t-posts and welded wire around each sapling.
These trees did not thrive. Mind you, I did not water them weekly as suggested. I relied on the mulch and rain to be enough. All that remains of last year’s efforts are sad little sticks that may or may not still be alive.
Fast forward one year.
Saturday. The day for larger projects. And a Saturday in winter when you have time to catch up on things that have fallen off the plate.
Today we decided to bush hog the upper field. We hope to use this field as pasture in the future, but right now it is mostly brambles and broomsedge. With spring coming and grasses just starting to grow, we have got to mow down the brambles and sedge so the sunlight can get to the grass. Giving the grass an advantage, a leg up in the fight for sunlight and nutrients.
This is the first time we have worked this field since owning the farm. We have neglected it until today. We just didn’t have time.
But we have been watching it. Observing. Noticing that among the sedge and bramble there are saplings.
Oak. Pine. Hickory.
These trees planted themselves. We had left the field untouched. The saplings thrived in our neglect.
So, instead of mindlessly bush hogging the entire over-grown field we carefully walked through it looking for baby trees. We cleared the area around the ones we wanted to keep. Then Mr. J bush hogged the field avoiding our baby trees.
Why trees in a pasture?
The trees provide shade for our livestock, food in the form of acorns and hickory nuts, habitat for birds, and potential lumber in generations to come.
I was terrified of this thing called pressure canning. I had visions of large metal pots exploding and causing dire harm. I just knew I would do it wrong and kill my family with spoiled food. On top of that, the food would taste bad, and we wouldn’t use it.
Despite all this, I bought a pressure canner last spring. It sat on the shelf in a closet for much of the summer. My brain began to hurt just thinking of learning this new and very foreign thing.
I lurked for months in a pressure canning Facebook page. Seeing beautiful jars of food. Reading rave reviews of recipes. Following the latest food bandwagon.
Finally, I gave it a try. I summoned my courage. Set aside an afternoon and evening. Read the instructions step-by-step. Gathered my equipment. Gave it a try.
You know what?
No explosions. We didn’t die. The food is delicious.
After canning several different recipes, I no longer need to reread the step-by-step instructions. I understand the process. I can do this thing.
Is there something new you want to learn? Summon your courage. Take a deep breath. Give yourself some time and give it a try.
If I can do it, so can you.
Why pressure can?
It is a way of preserving the harvest, whether that be veggies or meat. The food is shelf stable and ready to heat and eat. This fits well with our goal of growing as much of our own food as possible. Pressure canning adds another level of resilience to our farm.
This week I began to rotate my two four-month-old piglets through the cow pasture. The cows had been moved out of this pasture the week before, so it is now available for the pigs.
In this rotation I am moving them daily. I use two hundred-foot hog nets to make a paddock. Moving these nets to make new paddocks each day takes about 15 minutes.
I walk the piglets out of their pen at the barn mid-morning, and bring them back at 4pm for dinner. For six hours each day they chew on the grass and root for worms, grubs, and who knows what else. They literally roll back the grass with their snouts looking for delicacies.
This process requires attention and effort on my part. It requires more than just dumping a bucket of food in their pen, checking their water and walking away.
I moved their nets this afternoon in the brisk winter air, observed the “damage” they had done to the pasture, and asked myself
What am I doing?
Most immediately I am pulling up short white polls attached to electric netting, gathering them in my arms, and resetting them on fresh grass. But why?
Providing the piglets with fresh pasture each day gives them a clean, healthy environment and supplemental nutrition. Moving them daily using small paddocks distributes their fertility (aka urine and manure) throughout the pasture and limits the destruction they do to each area.
I look at the pasture they are tearing up, walk around using my boots to replace the clumps of grass they have displaced and ask myself
What am I doing?
Well, I think I am improving the soil. The work the pigs do could be considered destructive, but what if we thought of it as disturbance. Sort of like aerating the soil. I am inputting my time and labor by rotating the piglets daily, but they are also working for me by just being pigs.
Will this intensive rotational grazing be destructive or beneficial to our pasture? I don’t know. I won’t really know until later this spring. I will observe what grows in the areas the pigs have worked. Has it improved or declined? Do the areas they disturbed look barren or healthy.
One day last week my mind was occupied with the words hyper local. Those two words kept rolling around as I worked to sort out what that means to me. At dinner that night I shared with Mr. J that I think hyper local is the answer to my goals for community and economy.
When our cows escaped last year, it was neighbors that stumbled upon our troubles that helped us to get them back home.
When our pipes froze in the last storm it was neighbors across the way that drove over to help us out.
I source honey and milk from neighbors within a five-mile radius.
My eggs and pork and many of our vegetables come from our own farm. Soon our farm will supply us with lamb and beef.
That is hyper local.
Our aid did not come from friends out of state (though we did benefit from their prayers). Help came from people across the street or down the road.
It doesn’t get more local than that.
In this global world, hyper local is the solution. At least as much as possible.
So, I am starting a farm stand.
(Actually “farm stand” sounds a little too grand for what I have going on right now, but a girl can dream.)
I won’t advertise on social media. I don’t want people going out of their way to find me.
I want the neighbor who is driving past our farm regularly to be the customer. I want to be on their way, not out of their way.
It’s winter. I don’t have excess produce to share. I do have eggs. I will start with eggs.
A sign by the road letting neighbors know I have something to sell.
I have a hog head, wrapped in a white kitchen trash bag, placed in a large black tub, sitting on my kitchen floor.
And I am pretty pleased about it.
That head represents a step towards achieving a goal. The goal of growing our own food. At least as much as possible.
More specifically it represents learning a completely new set of skills: raising and caring for a pig from one month old to butchering. Housing, feeding, training, rotational pasturing, learning what it means to be a pig. Keeping all our pigs healthy and happy. Happy until the very last moment.
On butcher day we walked our hog a short distance from his paddock in the woods to an enclosed pen where some beer and cracked corn waited. He snuffled through the fallen leaves along the way looking for a stray acorn or grub. I calmly called “pig, pig, here pig, pig,” as I shook a container of treats. I patted him on his back – “gooood pig.” No stress, no fear.
Enclosed in the pen, the hog tuckered into the beer and corn. Mr. J. dispatched the hog cleanly with a .22, and the hog dropped. A sharp knife along the carotid and it was finished. The hog had one bad moment. We will have pork for months.
Thankfully, we had friends help us in the process. Some extra hands, some welcome experience. We could not do this crazy thing we are doing without friends.
Do you think it’s crazy to want to raise and butcher your own meat? I would have thought so a few years ago. But here we are, doing this crazy thing and moving towards the goal of growing as much of our food as possible.
Yeah, it’s a little crazy to have a hog’s head sitting in my kitchen, but I’m o.k. with that.
I have been keeping a close watch for blackberry patches on the property. Scanning the edges where the pasture meets the woods. It is on those edges that you find abundance. I have been keeping track of the berries as they ripen. Waiting. Eager.
It is officially blackberry season on Fiat Farm.
There is something peaceful and satisfying in a berry hunt. It is simple and basic. Both challenging and rewarding. We have a small window each year to partake of this bounty. Now is the time to dive in.
Actually, there is no diving. Any blackberry picker knows that caution is required. Those bushes have thorns. The fruits are not easily won.
Caution is necessary. Once the fruit is spied you plan the best angle of attack. The arm reaches carefully, but still you know that it is likely blood will be shed. The prick of the thorn. A sharp piercing. A drop of blood. Sacrifice.
But the reward is sweet. The fruits are abundant. The pain is short-lived.
One can better face this thorny challenge by wearing long sleeves and pants. An armor of sorts against the thorns. This armor does not eliminate the thorns but makes them bearable as we reach for the fruit.
With work and sacrifice a reward is achieved. Abundance is harvested.
And we can begin to create blackberry cobbler and jam and syrup. Yum.
I am at war. My opponent is legion. I may conquer my foe in one corner only to turn and find countless others amassing behind me. The battle is endless and requires constant attendance and meticulous attention.
If my enemy is beaten back, my labor will bear fruit. If allowed to flourish my seeds will be stifled.
I am at war with weeds.
The struggle is real.
But I am determined.
I face my garden each day. Hope. Satisfaction. Despair. Loss.
I look closely. Observe. Distinguish between fruitful plant and destructive weed. I dig out the weed while protecting my plants. I strive to create an environment where my plants will thrive, while suppressing the weeds and stifling their progress.
When the weeds are clear, the plants have access to the sun. The sun providing the energy on which we all depend.
Work each day to clear those weeds. Nourish the soil. Advantage that which bears fruit.
I need to remind myself of this.
These thoughts float through my mind as I tackle the weeds and tend my garden.