Monday, June 21, 2010

Farm Journal: Meditations Over the Onions

I will be out of town over the next two weeks so before I leave I need to hill the potatoes, weed the onions, and weed the squash field. I only had two days to do all this work, but I did it! As a result, I learned something about farming: nothing gets done unless I do it and I need to maintain the will to get it done. Nature (i.e., the weeds) doesn’t take a vacation, so when I go away, I’ve got to anticipate what will happen in my absence.

Unfortunately, I didn’t think the ducks would annihilate the squash plants. I was so discouraged. All that weeding I did last week and not much to show for it now. So I embarked on my regular solution to dealing with frustration: I ate. Asiago’s Restaurant is only three miles away from the farm and a great place for lunch. Today, Asiago’s helped me feel nourished enough—both physically and emotionally—to go back to the farm and continue with the onions and potatoes.

My e-mail report to Ron about this week came out in a poem:

Working out in the hot sun and sticking to it until it's done
I'm learning what it means to be a farmer.

The romance of it has worn off
But the purpose is still strong.


And Ron’s encouraging response:

It is interesting. Once your garden structure is set up with fencing, beds and paths, you will find that the romance will return. The amount of labor drops drastically...if you can keep up with the weeds by a daily walk through the garden with hoe in hand. Usually early in the morning-very nice. I can think of nothing more relaxing than "working" in the gardens. Before law school and gardens were an escape and a place to reconnect with nature.. I have photos of me and the kids with piles of squash and pumpkins--rows of canned tomatoes.....

What you are doing now is an introduction-and perhaps the most laborious gardening experience you will have.

The onions look great and the potato patch is impressive.

After we move I'll show you Chang's garden book--very productive yet a place of mindful meditation.....

I look forward to learning this meditative part of gardening, especially since it has the potential to take on a whole new mindset about working.

Coming from the grand industrial city of Detroit, I have learned to work without stopping, which is not good in the hot sun at the farm. Pacing myself, resting, and drinking water frequently is imperative! Soo, Ron’s wife, is especially concerned that I do this because one day a few years ago, Ron passed out from working too hard and not drinking enough water.

Wendell Berry addresses the difference between industrial farming and traditional farming, particularly with animals. Animals may be strong but they need a rest from time to time, so you find a quiet, shady spot on the land where you can give the animals some respite. (It’s a nice break for humans, too!) This is the opposite strategy when you work with a tractor, he says. It is integral to our machine culture that keeps going 24-7 without stopping.

Although I’m not working with animals at the farm, I’m having to learn a whole new pace and work ethic, especially on these sunny, 90-degree days. Taking time to rest, drink water, say hello to the goats and buffs, sit in the shade are a start. The work will still be there and I have to learn to leave my clock-mind at home and abandon the production line mentality. This is difficult because it is completely opposite what I’m used to doing and what is all around me in this culture.

Part of this new approach to work is also about simplifying my life. I’m the type of person who likes to make a long list of things to do and then check them off as I do them. It makes me feel productive and vital. But what am I accomplishing if all I do is work? Where and when does the enjoyment of life come? Do I wait until vacation times or put it off until retirement and then collapse on a lawn chair from pure exhaustion? No, I must now learn to pace myself and find that quiet space within to feel satisfaction at whatever I’m doing. That’s the kind of balance that the nuns taught in seeking the spiritual life. Such a slower pace allows “room” for prayer and meditation. So, if I desire an essential connection to Nature and an enjoyment of life, I need to make “room” for it. If I want to be a good and thoughtful writer, I need to slow down my pace and resist cluttering it with endless activities. What a great insight!

This week I did manage to meditate as I worked in the garden. Here are some of my thoughts.

· When the field is covered with weeds, I look very closely for the plant that will grow into a vegetable. It becomes my focus. I also try to save the plant no matter its size or scraggily appearance. Such care gives me a different relationship with the plant that emphasizes nurturing and that requires time and patience. It’s easier for me to have this relationship with the goats, who are animated and soulful creatures. Having a deeper relationship with the plants is important, too. Frankly, I must admit that I was having so much fun with the goats that I feared I wouldn’t care as much about the garden. However, being with the plants over these past couple weeks has assuaged that fear. I DO care about them and one reason why is because I am focused on the goal: to grow delicious, tasty, and healthy produce.

· My bones are weary and my muscles ache, although they are not as bad as I expected. My hands are full of new calluses, some of which burned from the hot soil as I pulled out the weeds. I don’t know how people do this every day—like the agricultural migrant workers. Maybe gardening at the farm is helping me empathize with them and their lives a little more. Maybe realizing that they are doing the hard work of harvesting fruits and vegetables for me makes me more thankful to their efforts!

· I had to get on my hands and knees in order to weed the onions. The sun was so hot. At first, the bugs started attacking my bare arms and I thought I’d go mad. Then I remembered Sister Mary Bader’s experience in Texas with the bees or gnats buzzing around her face as she did the laundry. They bothered her a lot, she said, and when she swatted them, they’ll hung around her all the more. Then she learned to just let them be and discovered that they left her alone. So I tried this, too, today and it worked! Maybe the bugs are just curious. Maybe I entered their territory and they were checking me out.

· Weeding the onions on my hands and knees gives me an opportunity to be closer to the earth and I got some relief from the heat. (This reminded me of the sweat lodge I attended last summer. When I sat upright, it was deadly hot and I thought I’d lose my breath. When I let my body lie on the ground, I got some cool relief and made it through the four-hour session.) Occasionally, a gentle breeze wafted through the garden today and it was so sweet. I acknowledged it, savored it, and thanked it as a little break from the intensity of the sun’s heat. Such small pleasures really make a difference! That I recognized it while working astonished me. Maybe I’m hearing the garden speak.

· I really enjoy working on the farm this year. I’m learning more about why we did things we did last year and I’m taking more responsibility to grow the plants. This has taught me a whole new work ethic that was derived in this country through farmers including: I work until I’m finished; I’m bound by the weather and the growth of the plants—and weeds; I try to anticipate things when I can or I respond to whatever happens. That’s a start!

· I’m learning how to grow food, which I think our whole country will need to do someday. As peak oil kicks in or as food becomes less available (industrial food system is unsustainable and will eventually break down) or too expensive, Americans will probably turn to gardening and processing on our own. So I’m getting ready. That very thought also went through my mind over these two difficult days. You might say I’m “doing research” or “attending school” as I continue to learn how to garden. But my work is still quite mechanical and I rely on Ron to tell me what to do because I usually don’t know. Still, I have the verve and the desire to do this work. Fortunately, I am a very goal-oriented person so that helps me through these difficult days, too.

· I said I wanted to be a potato farmer and I’ve gotten my wish. Potatoes are among the top five heavily pesticided vegetables. To grow organic (or non-spray) potatoes would deliver a higher price for something so precious. We expect the garden to produce 500-800 pounds of potatoes, maybe more, since this crop is doing very well so far. The plants are about a foot high now, enough to hill them and they are plentiful in size and number of leaves. Ron is VERY happy with them—and that makes me ecstatic. This city slicker is learning how to garden!

· I am awaiting word from my college about my request to go to Africa and not teach the First Year Seminar this fall. I suddenly realized as I was on my hands and knees weeding the onions that this was an occasion where I could call upon Mother Earth to shepherd me through this waiting period. If I am to see the world (my lifetime dream), then I have to trust that Mother Earth will send me forth—as she has already. So I said some prayers about that, I left it up to her and relaxed about it. I would like the experience of going to Africa and I have done what I can to put it in motion to happen. But I don’t want to sacrifice my job to do it either. If it’s to happen, it will. If not, not.

· Speaking of trusting Mother Earth, it is part of what makes the plants grow, which still seems to me to be a miracle. It’s as though they are in some black box where the magic happens and they produce fruit. There are scientific reasons for “the miracle,” yes, but there are still forces beyond human explanation that make it all work. The problem in our industrial age is that we have tinkered with these forces to create bigger products and harvests. The question is: have we have fooled ourselves and altered the processes such that we might accomplish the opposite effect over the long term? I hope not. All the more reason for us to re-learn the process of growing food for ourselves in our gardens. Ron says we know more about the science and technology, which can help us, but Americans have gradually gotten away from growing their own food. It will be a difficult transition, yet, Americans have a “can-do” spirit that gets them through difficulties. But can we adequately prepare ourselves for this new future? In recent years, many Americans have become interested in gardening, so that means that more people will be available to teach others how to garden. Maybe that’s one more reason why I am learning how to garden: so I may teach others. Hmmm.

· I get tremendous intellectual input and conversation from Ron whenever I ask questions or see him do something unfamiliar. This is graduate education at its best and maybe I’m understanding better what hands-on or experiential education means. I’m certainly learning science in a new way!


On Tuesday while I was weeding the onions a song from the night before was going through my head: “Let Me Entertain You.” It comes from the Broadway musical, “Gypsy,” one of my favorite movies with Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. I stayed up until one in the morning! But that is quite an unusual pattern.

When I come home after a long day at the farm, I take a shower, slip into my pajamas and veg out in front of the TV only to fall asleep for at least two hours. Sometimes I sleep before I shower. So staying up this late and actually watching the movie was different.

I’ve also started a bad habit in this summer heat: stopping by the Root Beer Stand for an ice cream float. It is so refreshing after a long, hot day and I use it as my “reward” to get through the tortuous day. But this is not a good habit to maintain or a good attitude to adopt. Maybe I need to take only half a day at the farm. Maybe I can work during the cool hours of the day: early morning and late afternoon. This is another area where I need to learn how to pace myself!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Farm Journal: Final Push Day

Today is Final Push Day. I’m helping Ron and Soo prepare further for their move from the Dancing Turtle Farm to their new farm in Bangor. Soo took today off from her law office to work on the house.

It’s quite amazing to see how much work they have accomplished on the house already, as busy as they both are. They have painted and cleared away much furniture, which allows them to show off the house very nicely. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten much interest yet. It’s apparently hard to sell a farm. Given the economy, it’s hard to sell any property. Maybe someone from out of state will buy the farm. Michigan does have favorable climate, land, water, and good soil available for such ventures and many farms are still small at no more than 350 acres. Ron’s farm is just 14 acres. Not many states have these advantages. To help remedy this situation, I bought the Kleins a statue of St. Joseph. Myth has it that burying the statue upside down helps to sell a house. (Within the month, the Kleins got two very interested parties!)

Channon and her family came to help with Final Push Day and they brought a ton of food to boot. Channon is a personal chef and food writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette. She is also a specialist in 16th century Turkish history and food and a re-enactment player for this same period. Her husband, Dan, is a 17th century French re-enactment player. Channon is also working on an article about the halal method of slaughtering farm animals. They have two sons, Luke, 13, and Ben, 11, both are very nice boys.

My assignment was to paint the greenhouse with a more toned-down color of beige to cover up the bright green that was on it. Ben helped me with the paint roller and I did the detail and touch up work with a brush. We finished in no time.

Channon, Dan and Luke helped to clear brush and tree limbs in the woods on the farm.

Afterwards, we had a nice little feast of chargrilled sausages, pasta salad, chips, snow cones with syrup from real crushed grapes, and cookies from Victorian Bakery. Delicious!

The boys were intrigued by the water buffalo and after we ate we all went down to the barnyard to see them. Soo and I went to the goat pen to visit the goats. Soon, everyone was in the goat pen petting and talking about the goats. The goats, of course, put on a great show of warmth and hospitality. They really are wonderful animals and certainly not the evil animals the Bible makes them out to be. Of course, they can be mischievous, but they are not destructive or an animal I fear. I’ve also spent a lot of time hugging them, feeding them, walking with them, cleaning the barn for them and they seem to respond in kind. They know me and Ron says they even know my voice when I approach the pens.

After Channon and her family left, Ron and I took a pasture walk to check the fences. A storm had ripped through the area two nights before and sometimes branches fall on the fences and electric wires and they need to be cleared. The goats were glad to go on the walk and a little while later the buffs joined us. The water buffaloes walk very slowly but they eventually get to wherever they want to go. Soon they were right there with us. They are herd animals and they must see themselves as part of the herd with the goats and the llamas. I think they also don’t want to miss anything. I suspect they’re just party animals.

When the buffs reached us, they all proceeded to eat grass except for LeBon, the bull. He followed Ron and me around the whole pasture, and even away the herd. Very unusual behavior, said Ron. I kept a certain distance from LeBon and made sure Ron was between me and the bull. LeBon kept shifting his position and I kept shifting mine. When we went to the southwest pasture, a couple more buffs joined us. Meanwhile, the goats kept up with us and stopped to much on the grass. They are such mellow creatures!

One important thing happened: I stopped LeBon when he came toward me. I held up my staff (Ron bought me a light-weight plastic one while he uses the wooden staff) parallel to the ground and up in front of his face and said stop. And he stopped! This amazed me and gave me more confidence. Buffs respond to voice commands and the staff. If they disobey, Ron gives their horns a sharp rap. This doesn’t hurt him rather, it is supposed to discipline and train them. LeBon usually responds to this treatment but with me he maintained himself as a very genteel fellow.

Actually, I think LeBon is curious about me and wants to interact with me. Time and time again, when I approach the barnyard pen and he’s there, he’ll come right up to me and attempt to “communicate.” Number 58, one of the heifers, does the same thing but LeBon is more consistent. I don’t know if he takes a certain responsibility for the herd and is checking me out or welcoming me in, but he’s always there first in line. I think interacting with him outside the pens has helped me now that I’m going inside the pens and on the pasture. But I maintain a watchful eye and don’t mess with the buffaloes, especially the bull. I’ll learn more about them as I go.


As we checked on the fences, I noticed that Ron had gathered downed tree branches and placed them inside the pasture for the goats to eat. They love the leaves from trees, especially sassafras trees, and gobble them up quickly. He also cut down some broken pine branches for the goats to eat them. They sure love those pine needles and can’t seem to get enough of them! They eat the needles almost like corn on the cob by slipping them off the branch with their mouths and munching. The chomping sounds they make are a great complement to the occasional clanging sound of the bells that hang from their necks. It’s all so very pastoral and ethereal. Good thing Ron was checking the fences. I was more distracted with watching the goats, especially since I haven’t been on a pasture walk since last fall when the does were pregnant—and before the buffs arrived. I’ve been a little more restricted from the goats because I don’t want to be in the pasture when the buffs are there and they’re there most of the time.

Two of the kids lagged continuously behind: Lena and Ella. They still haven’t acquired herd instinct and this is not proper survival behavior. If they were in the wild they’d never survive this way. However, that they feel safe in the pasture is a good thing. Eventually, they caught up to us but they seemed oblivious to the herd and much more interested in their grazing.

After the pasture walk, we fed the animals from the hay wagon, which is located next to the north pen. Some of the hay had gone moldy and Ron showed me how to spot it. It is gray and with a sour odor. The rain has made haying difficult because it doesn’t have a chance to dry. Cutting it has been delayed several times for the same reason. The ultimate problem with hay is whether or not there will be enough to go around for the animals in the area.

Ron has another problem with his pasture: there isn’t enough grass for all of the animals to eat. Especially with the buffs on the property. The animals eat four percent of their weight, so with 1800-pounders in there, the grass gets taken rather quickly.

This is all part of the problem of adjusting farming methods to the area’s more plentiful exposure to rain. This is a preview of what happens when the climate changes. Farmers are going to have to adjust to more rain in June, a key time for blooming crops.

I also had another lesson in knife opening and closing and had great trouble. I know how to do it but my strength doesn’t allow me to click on the buttons. Ron said he wants to give me a farm knife and he’s checking out to see the kind that would be suitable for me. I got a D in knives today. Zut alors!

I went home after the feeding. It was about 6 p.m. Another long day, which started at 10:45 in the morning.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Farm Journal: Barn Cleaning and Weeding

It’s a lot easier to work on the farm this year because I know how to do a lot of things with less direction. I’ve done certain chores before and now know what is expected.

Today, I would finish weeding the potatoes and onions and get started on the garlic. It was gratifying to see how much I’d done on the potatoes and that the weeds stayed down as I wait for them to grow more before I hill them with compost and soil. Hilling keeps the moisture on the plant and the weeds down. Weeds steal the nutrients from the plants. (So it’s especially interesting that in industrial farming they spray the weeds and kill the soil. Plants get their nutrients—and I’d say their good taste—from the sun, rain and soil. A bit of a misstep it looks like on the part of the ag scientists and technologists.)

Weeding is very therapeutic. Grabbing hold of the weeds, pulling them out of the ground, gathering them and then throwing them on the compost pile allows me to see my progress. It doesn’t require a lot of thought so I have time to reflect on other things or allow a song to go through my mind. Also, if I’m frustrated about something, I can easily take it out on the weeds. On the other hand, oftentimes when I’m at the farm, I just don’t think about the things that bother me. Is it the sun, the outdoors, the plants, the goats? That’s another reason why I farm.

I didn’t quite finish the weeding when Ron came down from working on the house and said the barn needed cleaning. I had noticed that the ammonia smell was very pronounced—and we had just cleaned the barn three days ago! It’s the constant rain that is making the goats spend more time in the barn. It also prevents things from drying up. Along the edge of the north wall, there seemed to be water seepage, too.

Ron still had more work to do on the house so I said I’d clean the barn—yet another thing I know how to do without supervision. And I cleaned the whole thing!! I piled up the compost in three places so the tractor could get in the barn. Then we scoop up the compost and put it in the tractor bucket. I also scraped the floor to rid it of the wetness and then let it dry on this hot day.

I’d just finished piling the last of the compost when Ron arrived. I was so proud of my accomplishment on this my first time cleaning the barn alone. He said I could take a break. Instead, I attacked the weeds in the garlic patch. The patch had been overwhelmed with weeds—which Donna and I did only a month ago. However, it’s not that there were so many weeds as that they were so big. These weeds presented me with the ultimate satisfaction. Because the soil was still wet, I could pull out the big weeds very easily. I was on my hands and knees to do this because the high-wheel weed puller didn’t work as well as it did when I weeded the potato field. I didn’t quite finish weeding, however, when we went to the straw store.

Over the winter Ron bought a big, white pickup truck and it is so high off the ground that I can’t hoist the straw bales in there as easily as I can with Donna’s smaller truck. Ron can hoist the bales up over the sides of the truck. So it became my job to arrange the bales to fit all nine in there. We returned to the farm and spread the straw. Ron had put lime down on the floor to remove the smell of ammonia, which must be annoying to the goats and buffs who are much closer to the ground. It’s bad enough for us who are a half body higher from it.

Spreading straw is like making up a bed with clean sheets. Everything is so nice and fresh. I’ve learned how to kick around the straw flakes to spread it more evenly. Soon after we finished, Ron let in the goats. Almost immediately, however, three goats urinated on the new straw. A farmer’s work is NEVER done and it doesn’t take long for the next round of barn cleaning. Whew!


Ron says the rain this spring is affecting farming, especially the hay crop used for feeding animals. There has been so much rain that this may indicate a change in weather patterns. Ron has been noticing these changes just over the past year. In talking to one of the vendors at the Bank Street Farmers Market, she, too, has noticed these same changes. Are other farmers seeing these changes? What effects do they have on farming? How has the rain changed planting/harvesting and what can be done about it? Is there, in fact, a new pattern of weather and rain developing or is it just this year?

This might be something legislators in the state and U.S. Congress might find interesting since they are going to have to respond to changing weather patterns some time or another—especially the deniers of climate change.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Farm Journal: Potatoes, Buffaloes and Bucks

Today I was determined to weed the potatoes and onions. They were planted three weeks before and the lambs quarters have taken hold of the field in the worst way. Got to get them out of there and give the plants room to grow and be nourished by the soil and sun without the competition from those weeds. I also need to hill the potatoes with compost but will need to wait until the plants grow larger.

I arrived in the early morning and went right to work—after I spent some time with the goats, of course. The water buffalo were in the pasture so the barnyard was clear of them and I felt comfortable going in the pen to pet and hug the goats. After about half an hour, I set out to work on the garden.

I worked alone today, quite different from last year when there were four of us working on the garden. Matt decided not to work on the garden this year and Donna is very busy with the farm market and legislation in Lansing. But I don’t mind doing this work by myself because this year I know better what to do. Last year I even had to learn how to water the tomatoes correctly!

Actually, this year I wanted to “go commercial” by planting a large garden and selling some produce at the farm market. I just want to see if I can do it. As it turned out, I would only plant potatoes and onions.

Ron threw out last year’s seed potatoes because he is trying to clean out his house and farm in preparation for the move to a new farm in September. He didn’t think anyone would plant a garden this year and he knew he certainly couldn’t do it. We were already a month behind in planting the garden. As luck would have it, Jerry at the feed store in Lawrence had 200 pounds of seed potatoes and 50 pounds of onions left that he didn’t sell. He was about to throw them away, so he just gave them to us. Soo and I picked them up with the big white truck—and I got to drive the truck. It’s always such a thrill for me to use big equipment. I’d learned how to drive the tractor last winter during our barn cleaning.

Ron picked through the potatoes and helped me plant 100 pounds of them and five pounds of seed onions and for that I’m grateful. I measured out the ground and he dug the holes and trenches. Then I dropped in the seeds and covered them over with soil.

These plants have become my summer project as I take care of them from seed to harvest. I ask Ron for some advice from time to time, but I follow through on the work. He also watches over the plants and alerts me to what needs to be done next.

The potatoes have sprouted very well—but so have the weeds. The field was so covered with weeds, including some volunteer amaranth, that it is difficult finding the plants. Today, Donna and Anna helped me a bit with weeding.

Not all of the plants came up and I thought they were lost but both Donna and Ron advised that it might take a little more time for them to grow. I hope so. Ron calculates that we’ll harvest 600-800 pounds of potatoes—that’s about 6 to 8 pounds per plant.

I love digging—and eating—potatoes. That was my driving force in getting so many into the ground! I also don’t mind working with the compost this year since I know it works on the plant and gives it nutrients and flavor. Ron says he has a machine that can help hill the potatoes, which also needs to be done in order to protect the potatoes underground. Sometimes they get exposed and that will stunt their growth or kill them. Hilling the potatoes will also help in finding the plants when they’re ready for harvest. I intend to make big hills this year.

While I was working in the garden, Ella and Ava were in the goat pen crying. The herd had gone to pasture and these two kids didn’t follow. It is essential that all the new kids learn to follow the herd. That is their protection from predators. So I stopped my gardening and automatically went into the pen and bid them follow me to the pasture. Along the way told them about the importance of sticking with the herd.

The water buffalo were in the far pen. Most of them were lying down in the shade chewing their cud and relaxing. I reckoned they’d stay put and not follow us. However, as I took the two kids to the south pasture, low and behold, I noticed the buffalo were walking all together in single file right behind us.

That was not a good sign because I’ve not been alone with the buffalo in the pasture and I didn’t have a staff to protect me. Fortunately, I didn’t panic, which I knew was key to being with the buffs. I simply stayed close to the trees for protection, as Ron had shown me when I went out to pasture with him one day. At one point I hid behind a large tree thinking I could hide. Then I saw two big buffs peek around the tree with their big noses and curious eyes. This was not a time to run away but it was imperative that I get out of there. I stayed in the trees for awhile and then walked around the buffalo toward the gate, which was some 50 yards away. As I walked, I petted a couple buffs and casually said hello as though this were nothing out of the ordinary. Fortunately, they were more interested in grazing than in me so I slipped out of there quietly with no harm done.

It was probably a stupid thing to do to take the chance of bringing the kids to the pasture but my instincts told me I should do it. And I really didn’t think the buffaloes would follow. On the other hand, they may have followed us as a response to their own herding instinct—or it was just time to go to pasture. (They do this all day long, going to and from the pasture with a shady respite in the barn or under the barnyard trees.)

I later told Ron about this incident. He was both pleased and surprised that it went so well because the buffalo had never reacted like that before and no one but he has been with the buffs in pasture either.

Actually, I’ve been getting to know the buffaloes over the past couple months. I’ve let them sniff and lick my hand and arm. That’s the way these huge 1800-pound beasts communicate. It must have gotten them used to me even though I hadn’t been working closely with them. Ron was also glad to hear that I used my instincts to get the goats with the herd. I was glad that he was glad and that he didn’t get angry with me. I was also happy that I had responded so well to the animals. I have told Ron that I’d like to learn to work with the buffs and he said that was fine. He also said that I was particularly good with the animals—a high compliment of praise indeed that utterly delights me. Actually, some days I feel as though I can communicate better with the animals than I can with people!

After I finished working in the garden for the day, I decided to visit the bucks. It’s been a long time since I was in their pen and that was before Dude was sent to another farm to be a companion to a pony that had been rejected by the other horses. Dude wasn’t exactly happy in the pen with the big boys: his father, Leonidas, and Tiger (the other breeder) and Latte Boy, Leonidas’ castrated brother who served as a companion to him before Tiger arrived. The bucks pushed Dude away from the food and water bins and he’d have to take whatever was left over. He also didn’t have any other playmates his age and he missed playing with his six sisters.

It was a traumatic day when he was separated from his sisters and put into a barn stall by himself. He tried to keep up a brave front but when I went in to see him, and crouched down on my knee to be up close to him, he put his nose into my jacket and just held it there for the longest time. Ron had tried to put him in the buck pen the previous day and the bucks outright rejected him. The reason he had to be separated from the girl-kids is that he was mounting them and getting a full erection. Bucklings can do that at four months! So he wasn’t doing anything that was out of the ordinary, it’s just that it wasn’t time for the girl kids to be mounted.

When he was first in the buck pen, Dude would cry at the gate whenever he’d see me pass by with the girl-kids. (I’d take them for pasture walks outside the pens because they were too little to be put in with the does and doelings.) After I finished with the girl-kids, I’d sit outside the buck pen to visit Dude. It was as though he were in prison. Eventually, I went inside the buck pen to pet and hug Dude. That’s when I got to know and feel comfortable with the bucks. Probably the reason I went in there was because of an incident that happened one day, when Donna and I were in the girl-kids pen, which is adjacent to the buck pen.

Dude saw us together in there and he stood up on his hind legs and bid us come to him. Unfortunately, he got his head or leg caught in the electric wire and was screaming. I went to his rescue and tried to take the wire away with my hand but, of course, got shocked myself. Then I pushed the wire down with my boot, which thankfully had a rubber sole, and Dude got away. I rushed into the buck pen to see if he was all right and he was. It was just another bad day for poor Dude.

It seemed as though Leonidas appreciated my effort for saving Dude from the electric wire. He had been allowing Dude to lay next to him from time to time, Ron said. Actually, I thought Dude was adjusting to the pen, especially when he one day pushed Tiger away from the grain bowl. Ron was pleased with that news because he’d never seen Dude do that. By and large, Dude protected himself from getting pushed around by the bucks when he would jump into the feed bin. Not a great place for a young buck full of energy and the desire to be friends with other goats.

One day Ron got a call from a farm woman who had a pony whose mother rejected him. He needed a friend so she called Ron to see if there were any goats available she could have for her pony. Goats, by the way, make great pets for horses and they are present in a lot of stables. This day was Dude’s lucky day. He had a new purpose and a new friend. That made him a lucky boy, said Ron, and it was also a lot better than going to “freezer camp.” I hope to visit Dude some day soon and to see his new friend, the pony. I wonder if he will remember me.


While I was in the buck pen, Ron saw me and asked me to help him trim Tiger’s horn. It was close to growing into his head, as that happens to goats sometimes. Ron had just finished hauling hay to the pasture with the tractor. He parked the tractor and then went to the barn to get a leading rope and the big horn trimmers so we could go to work on Tiger.

First, we had to steady the goat so Ron tied the rope around a tree and had me hold it. Tiger is a big French Alpine with a lot of strength for his 150 pounds. Ron tried to get the big clippers around the tip of the horn but I didn’t have the strength to hold Tiger very well. After several tries, Tiger at one point jerked his whole body and the whole horn came off. Unfortunately, a lot of blood flowed out and the big buck ran away to the goat shelter, a plastic tent-looking structure they use for cover. Ron ran after him to apologize and to see if he was hurt.

Actually, what came off was the scur. It’s a partial horn that grows out of the generative tissue that remains after disbudding—it’s like a hang nail with skin on it only it’s hollow. The horn is an extension of the goat’s skull. The core is a highly vascularized hard tissue that continually generates the horn throughout life. The vascular core extends about a quarter the length of the horn; the rest is solid. When an animal is “dehorned,” the horn has to be cut off at the base to remove the generative tissue—that produces a hole in the skill exposing the brain.

One year Ron’s fourteen goats were dishorned and it was horrible, he said. They all lived through it but it is one of the reasons he is so careful about disbudding when the goats are kids.

Ron thought Tiger’s scur was already loose and that it probably would have come off when he engaged in a little head butting with Leonidas. Nevertheless, the poor goat was bleeding profusely and Ron went to the barn to get some stop-bleeding powder. He tried coaxing the goat out of the goat shelter and eventually he came out. One side of his face was all bloody and it looked dreadful. Then Ron led Tiger to the tree and tied him up in order to apply the powder. This time Ron held Tiger by the rope and the beard as I poured the powder into his hand for him to apply to the goat’s head.

I marvel at Ron’s knowledge about these goats and his ability to do what he does to keep them healthy. This incident illustrates one of the unpleasant things that occur but it never deters Ron. He does what must be done no matter what. This is one part of farm life and the farm ethic that I’ve learned here at Dancing Turtle. Besides, who else is going to do it?


I had spent the day at the farm from 10 until 7 without eating anything. I was tired and achy but satisfied with all the work I accomplished. I could see my progress—and also see what more needed to be done: weed and compost the field of squash, cucumbers and sunflowers that I planted last week. Later next week for that, especially since I will be going away for a few days during the last week of June.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Farm Journal: Gates and Maimed Males

Gates are an essential feature on a farm. Opening and closing them is constant because they are the traffic controllers, you might say, in keeping the animals in or out of places where you want them to go. That lesson would become more poignant today after a much-needed cleaning of the barn.

Ron and I worked on the west half of the barn in an effort to get the job done before the rain hit—again. We’ve had an inordinate amount of rain this spring! He had done the east half of the barn a day or two ago so that meant we had two of the three birthing stalls to do, the loafing room and the entrance from the barnyard.

The animals must out of the barn in order to clean it. They can get hurt if they get in the way of our pitchforks and shovels that scoop up the composted straw and put it into the tractor bucket. We literally bring the tractor into the barn and then haul away the compost and put it on the pile near the hoop house. However, weather becomes a factor with barn cleaning because the animals don’t like the rain and if it storms, they risk getting hit by lightening. Water buffalo are especially vulnerable because they are so grounded with their weight and size.

Because the animals don’t spend that much time in the barn now that winter is over, it is much easier to shovel up the straw. They don’t poop or urinate on it as much and it doesn’t get caked on the cement floor. It’s also not as heavy for the same reason. So we finished our work in no time—and just before the rumbling of thunder and the pelting rain.

Ron took the last load just as it started to rain. He told me to close the gates of the birthing stalls, spread the straw from the paddock in the loafing room, and remove the tools so the animals wouldn’t get hurt by them. But this was an anxious moment as we tried to beat the rain. The goats were already gathering under a tree to protect themselves and the buffalo were at the gate leading into the barnyard. Ron tends to give a number of directions quickly and forgets that a rookie like me can’t get everything all at once because I am still unfamiliar with the routines. In fact, he had to tell me twice what he wanted me to do while he hauled away the last load of compost.

So I went to work. I put the tools away except for a scraper that I couldn’t carry; it was not as harmful to the animals if it fell. Then I took straw in the barnyard entrance and spread it in the loafing room. I completely forgot the gates in the barn because I was intent on opening the pasture gate to let in the animals. I did this for two reasons: I wanted to “rescue” the animals and be a hero and I wanted to do it before Ron returned. So as I was opening the gate to let in the goats, Ron returned and asked me if I had closed the barn gates. Yes, I said, completely forgetting that I hadn’t. Then I remembered. Shit, what a fool I was!

Meanwhile, I had forgotten that I would be in the barnyard with the buffs. Never before had I done that. This was actually dangerous because they could crush me. Fortunately, they were intent on getting past the gate and not worrying about interacting with me. As I opened the gate they came through one by one and went to the barn. However, I felt terrible at my negligence of closing the stalls inside the barn.

Inside the barn Ron sequesters the water buffalo from the goats with a big blue farm gate that leads into the loafing room. He doesn’t want the buffs in there because they can get stuck in the small birthing stalls. More importantly, the buffs and llamas can’t consume the goat mineral because they are sensitive to high amounts of copper. Goats have a copper requirement and their mineral has much more copper than llamas and buffs can tolerate over time. Also, because we hadn’t layed the straw in the birthing stalls yet, he didn’t want the goats to go in there because they would poop and urinate on bare concrete without the straw absorbing it. Needless to say, I felt like a fool unable to do what he told me to do. The tasks seemed so simple and yet I failed in them.

Then I found out that I had taken the straw from the barnyard entrance that had been limed and should have taken it from the paddock, which hadn’t been limed. At least I took the top straw and didn’t scrape it up from the floor. I just didn’t know the difference. But the ultimate problem with mistakes that it puts the animals in danger and creates more work for us, especially if they get hurt. Protecting the animals is like protecting an investment. They are the producers of milk and if something happens to them, production is adversely affected. Of course, you want to avoid any of them getting hurt because that makes the animal miserable.

Another problem with mistakes is that it causes you more work. Farm work by hand is hard. It’s physical. You are always seeking the greatest efficiency in order to preserve your muscles. If you don’t, you pay the price in having to re-do something—and that takes up more of your time. On a farm, you work until you get all your tasks done because no one else is going to do them for you. So you have to think ahead.


We were out of straw so we got into Ron’s big white pick-up truck and went off to the straw store. The store is a little family farm operation that grows and cuts the straw and stacks it in a small shed on the side of the road. You take what you need and leave your money in a little box inside the shed. It’s all done on the honor system. Straw bales cost $4.50 now and we took six bales. A few years ago, Ron said a bale cost only a quarter, so even straw is at a premium. Because the water buffalo really make a mess in straw, Ron has had to clean the barn even more times per week than when he just had the goats. And the more straw it takes, the more it costs to run the farm.

On our way back from the straw store Ron showed me how to distinguish the difference in farm soil—rich soil from sandy soil. Crops are starting to come forth. Some corn was already knee-high and half a month early at that. He pointed out the CAFOs, one of them re-constructed so that the hogs had more room in them than they usually do. The farmer there is pretty successful and he sells his pork to some out of state distributors. Ron also told me stories about some of the people he knew as we passed their farms. He has lived in this area for over 25 years and while many small farmers have gone out of business due to the farm foreclosures of the 1980s, the area is still heavily farmed. Actually, this area was settled more densely than the city of Kalamazoo was when it was founded because of the rich soils. What was most interesting to me as we traveled the country roads was how much a part of the farming community Ron was. I hadn’t seen that side of him before.

When we returned to the farm we spread some of the straw in the barn we had just cleaned. Ron cut the ties on the bale and then tossed loose flakes into the loafing room sometimes on top of the goats. They didn’t seem to mind and he considered this as a form of play with them. I then took the straw and spread it around the birthing stalls and the loafing room outside the stalls.

Goats are very clean animals. They don’t eat anything that’s touched the ground. And when the barn has been cleaned and spread with fresh new straw, they love to run around the barn to check it their new digs. It’s very funny to watch. As I spread the straw in the birthing stalls many of the goats came in and then walked out. It’s as if they are christening the new straw with their presence. Oftentimes they do it with their pellets or urine almost immediately after I’ve layed down the straw. A farmer’s work is never done!

Earlier in the day I noticed the kids walking on the backs of the seated water buffalo. This was very funny but it’s also a bit dangerous. Lil Man found that out when he did it and ended up with a lame leg. Perhaps he played around a buffalo who didn’t like it and then the buff moved and rolled over on his hind leg. He now walks—and sometimes runs—with a limp or he drags the useless leg with him. It’s sad to watch him because he looks like an old goat and he’s only a year old. Because he is male he is a little more aggressive and difficult to handle. However, this injury seems to have chastened him or at least trimmed down his verve quite a bit. Fortunately, his hurt leg is one of his hind legs and he can still move, even run, although not as fast. The front legs are more important to him for mobility. If one of them had been hurt, he would have been irreversibly crippled and culled from the herd. Unfortunately, his injury is in the lower part of his leg and it can’t be fixed. However, if someday it becomes noticeably painful for him, he’ll have to be put down and that would be a sad day.

Lil Man was conceived through the fence in an unscheduled mating between Tiger and Elle, one of the younger does. Ron knew it was Tiger and not Leonidas who sired the Lil Man because the kid has French Alpine ears like Tiger. Leonidas is a LaMancha with very, very short ears as is characteristic of the breed.

Lil Man’s beginning in life continues with him. I first met him when he was only a couple months old. A group of us was sitting on the patio and this little kid came up to see us like a cat would. He had slipped through the gate because he was so small. Lil Man continues to be an escape artist in various ways—until he met his match with one of the buffs.

After Ron and I returned from the straw store, he noticed blood on the floor of the barn. We tried to track it down to find out who had been hurt and where. It turns out it was the turkey tom. In fact, when the tom saw us at the barn entrance he limped all the way down the hill to see us. He had lost some feathers and his leg was bleeding. He had been in a fight with something. We went over to the fence next to the barn where he roosts and that, too, was bloody. Ron suspects that something grabbed at him when he was roosting. It seems this happened while we were away because the blood was so fresh.

The turkey tom has been an annoyance over the past few months. One day he attacked Donna and Ron had to discipline him by grabbing his wings and throwing him in the buck pen where he stayed for the rest of the day a chastened bird. He’d also attack Ron who one day kicked him hard in the chest to cause him to loose feathers. Ron and Soo threatened to cook him and hold a feast with friends.

Over the entire winter he was in full features swaggering around the barn with his thumping-like voice. He’d mount a hen or two for fun, which ultimately worked out well because one of the hens layed 11 eggs. Donna found the next in the hayloft a month ago and all the eggs hatched. Unfortunately, the poults have been picked off one by one by predators, maybe raccoons. Some were crushed by water buffalo because the hen decided she and her poults would sleep next to the buffs at night.)

On this day, however, seeing the turkey tom hurt was very sad. Ron gave him some grain to soothe the tom in the hope he heals. There is little much else he can do. The guinea hens immediately discovered there was grain to be had and they descended upon it but I shooed them away to let the tom eat in peace. Fortunately, within a week he recovered.

Lil Man and the Turkey Tom were proud and strong males in their own right and it’s difficult seeing them maimed like this. On my next visit to the farm, I would see it happen to Tiger, too. Lesson: as obnoxious as testosterone in a male animal can be, it’s awful and sorrowful to see them hurt. They look debased and disgraced.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Race to the Top

In a world full of unsettling and fast-paced change and uncertainty, one particularly bright light shined through last night: the 2010 graduating class of Kalamazoo Central High School.

KCHS won the President’s Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge. The prize: having President Barack Obama speak at their graduation ceremonies.

The Challenge involved more than 1,000 high schools that submitted a case for their commitment to academic excellence and their success in graduating students prepared for college or a career. Included was a three-minute video.

KCHS submitted “We are the Giants,” a rhythmic rendition of what it means to be a student at the school.

Part of the reason for the school’s selection is that since 2006, 1,516 students have gone to college despite the fact that it is a public urban high school of 1700 students with a high poverty rate (57 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) and a high diversity rate (51 percent African American, 39 percent Caucasian, 7 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian American, 1 percent Native American). In fact, in the video students claimed these circumstances to be their strength and the evidence is clear.

Compared to two years ago, more students are taking Advanced Placement courses.

Students are more involved than ever in service learning projects.

This year the KCHS boys’ basketball team won the state Class A basketball championship for the first time in 59 years.

The mock trial team placed second in the state mock trial competition (and is a winner of 17 state championships).

The band received a silver medal at a national competition in Orlando, Florida.

The KCHS graduation rate is now 80 percent.

Key to these achievements is an innovative program called the Kalamazoo Promise that provides a full-tuition scholarship for eligible students to attend a Michigan college, university or community college of their choice.

The Kalamazoo Promise was created in November 2005 by an anonymous group of donors who believed that the foundation of economic development is education and then put up the money to try to make that happen.

KCHS students have responded in kind by taking advantage of this unique opportunity afforded them through hard work and study. Some are even the first generation in their family to be college-educated.

I’m sure the president’s committee that selected KCHS took note of “the Promise” as an example of the kind of support well-endowed citizens in communities across the United States can give to youth, especially at this time when states must make drastic cuts in their educational programs and budgets.

However, I’m sure the committee noticed something else about KCHS and it was evident at last night’s commencement.

The students displayed an unusual energy and excitement. Of course, they were in the company of the President of the United States who not only praised them for their achievements, but shook each of the nearly 300 students’ hands. Some students even hugged Obama who warmly received them.

But beyond their youthful exuberance, the students displayed a dignified behavior with their heads held up high. And rather than be stymied, fearful or overwhelmed with the difficult world they are about to enter, they seemed ready and willing to address its challenges.

Adults today are too quick to deny the world’s problems, make excuses for their inaction, and distract themselves from taking steps toward more deliberate solutions.

The KCHS students did not seem to shirk from responsibility but rather to take it on as they prepare themselves to be teachers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, businesspeople, scientists, trades people, engineers, farmers, political leaders as well as parents and citizens in our communities.

Curiously, I am finding this fearless attitude in other youth as well.

The young people of this country are ready to lead. Let the rest of us be inspired and follow them!