Taking The Sons And Daughters

The philosophy of food can sometimes make my brain feel like a forgotten fried egg in a smokey skillet.  What is really best for the human body?  Paleo, vegan, Mediterranean, raw, slow-cooked, fasting a little, fasting a lot, or just sit tight and eat right for your blood type?  I think, after many years of feeling passionate and curious about food and food production, I’ve been asking the wrong question.  There is no singular philosophy of food that is best for the human body.  There is only that philosophy, or even lack thereof, that seems to work for our own bundle of biology.  I am more certain than ever that certainty has no place in a food fight, with the one exception that fresh, real food of any kind trumps processed, industrial food every time.  Otherwise, we could use far less preaching on food, and perhaps even religion, since each of us can gauge for ourselves what makes our bodies, and our souls, really sing.

There is one aspect to my own eating that is particularly sorrowful, but first I want to put it into context.  I eat mostly whole grains, vegetables, and fermented dairy (yogurt, kefir, etc.),  so if you’re looking for a philosophical label I suppose vegedairyan might work.  But I also occasionally eat beef from our farm and fish from the sea, so, in fact, I sound like just another omnivore.

I have always gravitated to a homesteading, farming lifestyle for food production.  I enjoy the work, but I am not preaching to convert.  It is just an interest of mine that makes me happy.  What a mess we would have, at this point, if everybody on Earth wanted to farm.  But if you want to farm and eat somewhat sustainably in New England, putting animals on the rocky, grassy pastures seems like a good bet.  Something to transform all of that abundant New England grass into human food for the long winter ahead.  Something like a dairy cow.  Something like the six dairy cows that currently graze these hilly pastures of home.

This is where the sad part comes in.  When a cow freshens (gives birth), she begins lactating so her calf has the milk it needs to survive.  It is a beautiful sight to see a cow with good maternal instincts standing still while her newborn stumbles to figure out the workings of her udder.  It is equally beautiful to see them curled-up together in the green grass, napping hard beneath the warm sunshine.  But it cannot last.

Virtually IMG_1794all big dairy farms, and even most of us on a small-scale, separate the calves from their mothers.  The big farms do it right away, and I usually wait about a week, keeping the cow and calf in a big,  clean stall in the barn.  Imagine the logistical chaos if newborn calves were left with their mothers on a large farm.  Getting the cows into the milking parlor would be a nightmare each day, and cows that are nursing calves don’t always let their milk down for the farmer.

IMG_2268My biggest reason, however, for separating the calves from their mothers, is safety.  Valuable calves are easily taken by coyotes and bears, so I like the calf in a safe barn while mom is out grazing under the stars.  But it is mostly my safety I’m referring to.  I want the calf to bond with me, not its mother, because in two short years it will be pushing a thousand pounds with legs powerful enough to hit the delete button on my life while I’m milking her.  I want her to remember all of the times I gave her a bottle with mother’s milk, all of the times I scratched her chin and led her to fresh green grass beneath the apple trees.

The only way that happeFullSizeRender(2)ns, and the only way I can easily get milk from the mother (which is my income), is to separate the mother from her calf. I do that after their week of bliss together in the barn.  Mom goes back out to graze, but soon, within hours, she will start to bellow for her calf.   It is the sorrowful and sometimes panicked sound of a mother who cannot find her child.  I have heard it for 17 years, several times each summer, and it haunts me most at night when I’m laying in bed.  My heart aches every time.

And every time I remind myself that she will get over it, and they will reunite in a few months to once again eat grass together.  But the sound of that pain is a dark and empty hole in the philosophy in which I’ve chosen to eat.



A Note From Bob

I’m sorry for the long absence since my July post, but I injured my arm (more on that later) at the same time my 2006 laptop suffered a fatal injury.  I just upgraded to a 2008 for fifty bucks, and now I can get back to checking the weather forecast, sending e-mails, and posting now and then on The Farmer’s Pencil.  I’m hoping you will scroll down and read the latest posting  “A Market Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants.”  It was published last summer in “Tamworth As We See It”, a book that offered perspectives on our town at 250 years.  I offer my piece again in honor of a town I’ve loved for 27 of those 250 years, and also in honor of National Farmers’ Market Week.  I think it was last week, but really, who knew?

A Market “Most Advantageous To The Inhabitants”

Hunger has always been a relentless motivator for human beings, right up there with the ubiquitous call of our thirst, and perhaps even love. So I should not have been surprised when a friend showed me our Tamworth Town Charter from October 14th, 1766, and the role that hunger played.

The document is four pages long, but early on, after a surveyor-like description of the 23,040 acres we all love as Tamworth, it gets right to the point: “…as soon as the said Town shall consist of Fifty Families, a Market may be opened and kept one or more Days in each Week, as may be thought most advantageous to the Inhabitants.” This was no rustic Hannafords, it was a farmers’ market. You had to farm, and it says so right in the document: “…every Grantee, his Heirs or Assigns shall plant and cultivate five Acres of Land within the Term of five Years for every fifty Acres contained in his or their Share…” Food came first in the Tamworth Town Charter, followed by the politics and particulars of running a small town in a land of “Rocks, Ponds, Mountains, and Rivers.”

Oh, what I would give to rise early on a Saturday morning and saddle-up for a slow ride off of Pease Hill, heading for that first market and the fifty families that then called Tamworth home. Riding toward the brightening sky, one hundred years before the Mason jar. Riding toward the unportioned raw reality of frontier food in a land defined mostly by winter. The vegetables might be ugly, but at least there would be plenty of parking for the horse.

We will never know what those first markets really looked like, but we know what it looks like in this century, and what it says about food and farming in the “Six Miles square” of Tamworth in 2016. We begin our tenth year in Tamworth of watching farmers and families rise early on a Saturday to go to market. Myself among them, I load-up rather than saddle-up a pickup truck in the darkness of an old dairy farm. Perhaps 250 mason jars on a busy summer Saturday, testing the leaf springs with dairy and maple syrup.


Rolling through the village at dawn, crossing the Swift River and gently rising to a crossroads and height of land, I arrive at the market. And this market, in this century, is courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist congregation, opening their fertile parking lot so 30 or more vendors might blossom here each Saturday from May through October. When the leaves have fallen and the chevrons of geese have passed, we head inside for Holiday Markets at the Brett School, and Deep Winter Markets at the Town House. Again, I wonder about those first fifty families, the markets they may have had when the kettles of hawks had long migrated and the pounding obstacle of snow came blowing down from the White Mountains.

But here in the parking lot the sun is rising, chairs and shaded tables made ready for market-goers to visit, eat, and listen to music. And now the current face of farming in Tamworth comes forth, one vendor at a time pulling into the parking lot, unloading their goods in the usual spot. From the Bearcamp Valley comes vegetables, honey, and eggs, from Chocorua comes sweet cider and beef. From Wonalancet comes lamb and hay, and bread still warm from the wood-fired hearth. From the heights of Cleveland Hill comes more meat and vegetables, and a rainbow of mushroom varieties roll in from Gardner Hill. And still more vegetables from the edge of the Hemenway Forest. From the village itself comes jams and jellies, sausage and cheese, baked goods, hard cider and mead, and pastured chicken and turkey.

distance market

Indeed, we have a market as called for all those years ago by King George the third and Governor Benning Wentworth, and their antique eyes would shine with incredulity at the sight of a thousand market-goers on an August Saturday in Tamworth.

Today, most people in Tamworth are not farmers. But many residents are celebrating the comeback of local food and farmers’ markets. They come to the market for the same compelling reasons those first fifty families did all those years ago. Our physical and metaphorical hungers come in many shades. We hunger for connection, for community, for love and acceptance. Two hundred and fifty years later, it truly is “most advantageous to the Inhabitants,” and they are us.





Hydraulics and Humanity

Who was it that first dreamt of accomplishing hard, physical work with magic?  What part of their body spoke loudly in the universal language of pain?  There must have been rocks to move, earth to relocate, or wood to make smaller.  The tools were iron and stone, the fuel was muscle and bone.  But somewhere that first person drifted away toward a fantasy that would lift humans into the house of gods, and that fantasy was no more complex than a tiny lever married to a hydraulic hose.  Wiggle that lever with the slightest effort from your opposable thumb, and you become the deity of your dreams.

Oh how I can relate to that sore shouldered soul from across the ages, wondering how to keep driving forward with a body that wants to park.  It turns out they still make rotator cuffs like they used to.  Tendons still tear.  Muscle and bone still have the final say in the human body, closing up shop when they’re ready to quit.  Our mind is quite certain we own that shop, and we want it to stay open another few hours, another few years.

I loved splitting wood as a teenager.  There was something so immediately gratifying with iron hitting wood, to a teenager looking for context and meaning in an oil-embargoed world.  I never dreamt of a woodsplitter; there was no pain, only devotion to the omnipotence of youth.  I guess the most sanctified object in my life was a splitting maul.IMG_1968

Independence, thrift, and physical fitness all wrapped up in that hickory handle with an iron head.  So the cords kept piling up over the years, from little cabins in the woods to finally this hardscrabble farm surrounded by forest.

There is less dogma in my maul these days.  Splitting wood, not atoms, isn’t going to save the world.  I split wood because it is here.  I am a frugal New Englander with an addiction for cast-iron warmth on a cold winter day.  I split wood to spend time with my son, both of us swinging mauls and quietly conversing on a summer evening.  There is a hint of competition in the air, his young body now stronger than mine.  And I split wood because I can’t quite imagine life without homemade wood-fired pizza from our 1920s Queen  Atlantic cookstove.

Years ago as an apprentice carpenter, I realized I gravitated to hand tools.  I loved their craftsmanship and simplicity, and their singular mission to precisely perform one task. That is not to say I do not own power tools.  I do, many of them.  But I always felt it was wise to learn a task with a hand tool first, to know how to do something slowly and well, before adding the risk and magic of speed.

These days I am surrounded by that magic. The miracle of hydraulics will smooth your dirt road, land a jet plane, or stop your car on a dime.  It will also offer you 27 tons of force in your own backyard to split even the most gnarled, tenacious piece of wood that used to make us cry.

I have yet to invite that 27 tons of magic into my backyard, at least on a permanent basis.  We have had several get togethers, though, thanks to a friend, just to see how we like each other.  Clearly it was not love at first sight.  The hydraulic beast is loud and talks too much, fouling the evening air.  My mind says no, but my shoulder channels a bit of ancient advice and poses the rhetorical question, “How long do you want this shop to stay open?”IMG_1749

This Maple Ministry

The last of 500 buckets have finally been cleaned, two months after the sugaring season ended in mid-April.  And not one of those buckets were hung in a traditional sugarbush, a section of forest where well spaced sugar maples are managed to thrive with little competition.  So how does a farmer sugar without a sugarbush?  You hit the road, three and a half miles to be exact.

New England is full of roadside maples, and these Tamworth backroads are no different.  In between the farm and the village there are fifteen different friends and neighbors with tappable  sugar maples near the road, and all of these folks share a passion for rites of spring, like buckets on trees.

It almost feels like a three and a half mile congregation, a ministry of maple where the buckets baptize the faithful as winter takes its first early steps into spring.  And I am no minister, but during those six transitional weeks of winter nights and springtime days, I can certainly preach the gospel according to sap.

My pulpit is a pickup truck.  When the sap is running, I hitch to a trailer containing six empty 55 gallon barrels, along with the five Disciples of Sap: Amy, George, Margaret, Jennifer, and Lucy.  We roll slowly down the road from one band of buckets to another, from one neighbor to the next.  At each stop we all disembark to our usual trees, methodical and cheerful, powered by hope.

There is conversation, always conversation.  The mood is as high as the sun, beating back the long winter behind us.  People smile and wave, others stop to help empty a few  buckets and then move on. Seasonal communion at this roadside church.

We drink the “wild water” as Jennifer calls sap, sampling different trees along the way.  Some are sweeter than others, like people, and we remember the sweet ones.  We find our way back to them.

Eventually, with a setting sun and falling temperatures, we make our way back to the farm.  Barrels are pumped out into a 400 gallon tank where it can slowly trickle into my evaporator.  We say our goodbyes and I prepare a fire for the solitary act of night boiling.IMG_9715

Loneliness does not come easy to me.  I love the cadence of my work when guided by quiet mindfulness.  The rhythm is almost always the same in that three-sided sugarhouse on dark and chilly nights, steam rising for the stars.  Every few minutes my right hand holds a piece of slabwood on a chopping block, my left arm swings the maul.  It is a motion built on muscle memory, and I wonder if that memory is capable of forgetting the pain that is starting to creep in after all of these years.

I swing open the doors to the arch, throw in an armload of wood and close the doors quickly, not wanting to kill the boil. Next I’ll check the temperature of the front pan, glance at both float valves, then perhaps finish bottling a batch of syrup into mason jars. Once every two hours or so I’ll grab my hydrometer and draw-off about three gallons of 219 degree syrup.  Some of that syrup eventually flows back down the hill to all of the friends and neighbors who shared their trees.

When the clock starts flirting with midnight, my body starts to shut down.  It has usually been a long and physical day, and I don’t dare sit down for fear of falling asleep and burning syrup in the front pan. At times I listen to music, or a baseball game (a sport made for radio), and often I’ll let my mind wander to the low rumble of fire and the rolling sap. The questions always outnumber the answers in this open-aired cathedral of the night.  My kind of church, I suppose.

I draw down the fire and make sure the sap levels are running deep.  The urge to sleep has once again surpassed all other urges, and I walk across the dark yard feeling like I’ve nothing left to give. But across these recent years  I’m learning to save a little something to somehow, some way, give thanks.



Memorial, and Advice, to a Coyote

I remember when I saw it, deep into last year’s autumn, Mother Nature switching gears for the long, long road trip we call winter.  Amy and I were rolling up electric poultry fencing for the winter, absorbed in the two-person task which stretches for 200 feet in an arc from one corner of the barn to the other.  She saw it first with a gasp, and soon my own breath was stolen by the sight.

This semi-circle of safety was meant more to keep the chickens from damaging our vegetable gardens, and less to protect them from the many creatures that enjoy a farm-style chicken buffet.  And yet this handsome young coyote had breached the electric fence and managed only to kill himself.  Death by hanging.

The scene took more than a few seconds to truly register in my mind.  It didn’t seem real because it didn’t seem possible.  Here was a coyote hanging in the crotch of two Soft Maples, soft only in name, quite hard enough to kill.IMG_1111

How did this play out?  The trees that claimed his life were just inside the electric fence.  Perhaps he tried to push himself under the fence and was shocked in the process, causing him to bolt into the air with a most unfortunate landing.  Or maybe he got past the fencing without receiving his degree in electrical engineering, and he began chasing the panicked chickens.  Maybe one of the chickens flew toward the trees, the coyote lept but came up short and slid down to his death.  However it happened, I simply marveled at the odds of this freak accident ever happening again in nature.

But I didn’t just stand there like a naturalist, trying to piece together the facts and solve a mystery.  The empathetic bones in my body ached at the sight of his struggle.  He desperately tried to free himself, clawing at the bark of the maples.  Forgiveness did not follow him on that day.  I hope his breath was taken quickly.

I am not among the many farmers and ranchers who hate coyotes.  I do my best to get calves in the barn shortly after their birth, and I’m okay with a coyote killing a free-range chicken on rare occasion.  On the other hand, don’t ask me about the groundIMG_1104hog that ate $700 worth of broccoli last year!

I have watched with delight a coyote following me as I cut hay with a tractor.  More than once he was only ten feet behind me, searching for rodents in the newly fallen grass.  I have wandered quietly on foot into a field of clover, watching young coyote pups frolicking without a care in the world.

Maybe this coyote was one of those pups.  And he learned how fickle and random the dangers of this world can be.  I hope his brothers and sisters move through the forest with the same four words of advice we humans have given our young for thousands of years.

Look before you leap.

Criminal Carrots

IMG_1171-1 carrotThese days I would not dare attend a Red Cross blood drive.   My veins feel full of carrot soup.  If beta carotene were illegal, I’d be serving life in a Super Max.

Carrots that are left in the garden all winter can be absolutely addicting when dug in the winter or spring, sweet and crunchy like nothing the supermarket has ever seen. I’ve tried keeping carrots in a root cellar with various storage strategies, and no system equals leaving them in the ground right where they grew.  Mulch hay, leaves, and snow-cover will protect them from freezing, and that is the happiest way to kiss a carrot goodnight for the winter.

Suppose, now, that you want to wake up a few pounds of those carrots in January and taste their sweet dreams.  And suppose we’ve had three feet of heavy wet snow and an inch of freezing rain for good measure.  A root cellar full of carrots starts to sound pretty good right about now.

But the addiction is strong.  I know the difference.  These stay-at-home carrots are worth a few minutes with a snow shovel, hacking away at the snow, ice, and hay until you see that dark earth reveal itself for the first time since October.  And then you reach for the garden fork and plunge it into the soil as if it were August, soft and pliable, and pry up the prettiest carrots that Old Man Winter has ever seen.

That is what happens most of the time, but not always.  I will never forget one February day several winters ago, approaching one of my carrot beds with snow shovel in hand and a five gallon bucket ready to fill with carrots.  I wanted a carrot cake like my bees want nectar, and I started digging.

Each carrot bed is marked with fiberglass fence posts at the corners, so I know exactly where to dig.  But this time when I got down to that friable, gorgeous soil not seen since Autumn, there was nothing there.  Nothing but vole tunnels.  They had binged on the entire bed, every last carrot crumb, and were now probably sitting in an underground circle at some 12-step vole program for winter carrots.

But this year the crop is all mine, no voles to dine, and I am happily pushing my kidneys to the limit, one bowl of soup at a time.