Could it be? The summer growing season is coming to an end. The tomatoes have peaked, and been accordingly canned, the hogs are foraging the first of the acorn fall, and the cornfields have been tilled under. I’ll be around a couple of months more, minding the produce and bothering the hens and whatnot. But today is the last day for many of our farmhands, who are off to other adventures like mountain climbing in Colorado, student teaching in Salisbury, rabble rousing and fighting the good fight, or headed back to the grind of university life.
With the weather now comfortably in the low 80s, the basil insisting on flowering despite all our attempts to head off the inevitable going to seed, I thought I’d take a few moments and celebrate some personal milestones of the past couple of weeks.
Many of which involve, at least tangentially, my friend Joe, the REAL farmhand, who really deserves a post of his own. I mean, just look at him:
Milestone #1: Killing a chicken.
Yep, I really did it. And no, I’m not talking about the little fluffy biddie I stepped on earlier this year. It was a Monday, and the Chicken Killing Crew (or “processing crew,” as the preferred euphemism goes) was at it again. Joe, as usual, had designated himself lead slaughterer and held the big knife.
Wanting to show a little reverence for the life I was about to take, I approached Pasture John (you remember him, the Pastor/Farm hand?), who was manning the scalder and plucker, and asked him to show me how to end the life of a chicken, as he was taking turns with Joe. “Nawh. You better get Joe to do it. He’s better at it than me. He even seems to enjoy it.”
Joe showed me how to grasp the head of the upended birds and stretch out the neck. Then, he demonstrated, “put the point of the knife in first, and then cut across real hard.”
It didn’t look hard. So I took a deep breath and I took the knife and jabbed the pointed end in the neck of the bird and, and, well, it was hard. Physically. I didn’t anticipate the force which was necessary to cut through flesh. I struggled. The bird struggled. Farmer Ted and the others looked up from the entrails they were digging out of the carcasses and started shouting instructions, “Harder! Go! Go!” I finally half-sawed my way through and the reassuring sounds of a chicken in death throes soon filled the room. The crew congratulated me with lines like, “What did that chicken ever do to you, Diana?” But I had done it. And lived to eat chicken again.
Milestone #2: Electrification by Fence
The top wire of the electric fence is not supposed to be live. We routinely push it down just far enough to climb over, and so long as it doesn’t touch the wire beneath it, we’re good. Well, I’m just tall enough that I don’t have to push down the top wire, and I just hoist one leg over, straddling the fence for a second and then hoist the other one over. Only last week, as I straddled the fence on the way to gather the eggs from the cluck wagon, I got zapped. And yes, it hit me where the sun don’t shine. Twice actually, before I managed to get the other leg over, cursing.
I told Joe when I saw him, and he asked me which fence. I pointed to the one along the farm road. “Oh, that one. Yeah, it’s not supposed to do that. I saw how the wires at the end were all touching each other. I guess that’s the problem.” Nice. I asked him if it was normal to get zapped by an electric fence in farming, or whether I was truly a bonehead and should hang it up (Whatever “it” might be in the case of a farming aspiration. My overalls?). “Oh, sure. Happens all the time. Especially if you’re like me and you try to fix the things without shutting them down first.” So there you have it. A verified right of passage. Another milestone in my farming experience.
Milestone #3: Driving a Tractor.
I really can’t see how I’m ever going to get taken seriously in the farming community if I don’t know how to drive a tractor. But the only ones driving tractors on Greenbranch are Farmer Ted, his father Dr. Ted, Farm Foreman Jeff, and “where-you-going-with-that-hoe-in-your-hand-Joe.” Joe’s as adept at hoeing as he is with tractors and other large machinery, and he can fix ’em, too.
“You know, people around here try to call me lazy because I’m always suggesting we use the tractor for a job instead of trying to do it by hand. But it’s about efficiency. You can’t make a profit farming unless you’re efficient at it.” Now those are words straight out of the mouths of many a small farming guru. “Now Ted’s talking about getting some draft horses…” he trailed off. There does seem to be a trend nowadays that glamorizes the manual labor in farming. But tractor or no tractor, there’s always plenty of manual labor to go around in a small farm.
So when I saw Joe coming up the pasture in the big green John Deere on a slow Monday in August, I flagged him down and hitched a ride.
“Hop in on the other side,” he said, cranking the door open.
“Um, where do I sit?” I asked, surveying the tight cabin with tools and knobs and levers strewn on every surface but the driver’s seat.
“Oh, I guess you’ll just have to sit there,” Joe said, gesturing at a tool compartment, “seeing as though this tractor don’t have no what we call a bitch seat.”
“Bitch seat?” I inquired, climbing in.
“Yeah, that’s just what we call where the trainees sit, you know, like they call the back seat of a motorcycle,” he explained, with his characteristic impish grin.
I asked about all the knobs and levers and pedals as we mowed the pasture, but it wasn’t very long before I had to run back to the shop.
But the next day, I caught him getting ready to till the zinnia patch. He still didn’t let me drive, but he let me pose in the driver’s seat!
Later that day, however, as I made a dash through the rain towards the barn where the potty is, Joe beckoned to me from the mini tractor, the glorified lawnmower tractor. “Here. You’re gonna learn real fast how to drive a tractor. Hop on. Drive it back to the barn.”
“Okay, which one is the brake pedal?”
“It doesn’t have no brake pedal. You just turn it off,” said Joe, getting rained on.
“How do I turn it off?”
“With the ignition key.” Joe said, with a hint of “duh” in his voice.
And off I went! Driving the tractor through the field, turning onto the dirt farm road, and pulling it into a space by the barn just in time for Farmer Ted to come out from the other side of the barn, throwing his hands up and shaking his head at me in disbelief. I guess next time I should ask before I take his tractor out for a spin.
Milestone #4: Being “Country”
Contrary to popular opinion, foodies and yuppies are not the only people who seek out organic products. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from all walks of life in the shop, from artists and yoga instructors, to electricians, park rangers, school bus inspectors, elementary school teachers, professors, doctors, poultry keepers, and antique dealers. A large contingent of customers are battling with various cancers, and have chosen, some on doctor’s orders, to support their health by limiting their exposure to carcinogens in their food. Some of them stop here on their way home from radiation therapy. God bless them.
But some of my favorite customers are the old timers. The ones who have all kinds of sayings about the weather and who reminisce about the farms of their childhoods upon seeing our fresh chickens. (“Think it’s gonna rain today?” I asked one man with a walker. “Well, if it doesn’t, it’s missing a fine opportunity,” he said, gazing up at the gathering of dark clouds.)
One such couple came to visit the shop a couple of weeks ago. She’s a wiry, spry “young” thing , and he looks like santa claus on summer vacation, his t-shirt tucked over his belly into his elastic-waisted shorts. We bantered about how real food was hard to find these days and how things just don’t taste the same when they come from the supermarket. She asked me if I had any fresh eggs. I was happy to tell her that in fact, I had just returned from the cluck wagon with a basket full of eggs.
“But I haven’t had time to clean them yet, so hope you don’t mind if they’re, well, you know where a chicken egg comes from, right?,” I winked.
“Oh that’s okay, honey,” she cooed. “We’re country, same as you.”
I have never in my life received a compliment that meant more to me. Just maybe this clueless farmer has a prayer after all!