As some of you know, my family and I have tried to make a go of it out here on this muddy, mostly wooded portion of Marilyn’s family Century farm. Our 40-acres consist of a valley on top of what has been called “the Highlands” since the earliest maps of our county—thus, “Highlands Valley Cottage Farm”. We added the quaint term, “cottage”, because we daren’t imply for even a second that our efforts have had any semblance to a farm!
To take a step back further, as some of you know, I came to this with no experience whatsoever in farming or even gardening! I spent forty-five years land-locked in cities before we escaped to this isolated valley in the Appalachian foothills. Just as I disclaimed in my book, this website will NOT consist of blogs or videos on “how to farm”. I might share how we happened to try something, or more often how I worked myself out of a hole I had dug for myself! But I wouldn’t presume for a second to have the wisdom or knowledge to tell anyone about how to do anything on a farm! Rather, we’re mostly just sharing with friends—fellow “cottage farmers”—what we’ve been up to, and maybe asking advice on how to manage the latest crisis.
In trying to learn how to farm, we’ve accumulated quite a library of books and weblinks about traditional, organic, sustainable, subsistence, small, or cottage farming—even some books claiming one can actually make a profit from farming! Overflowing with great ideas, these books have successfully inspired many young couples, with growing families and manure-spreader loads of energy and enthusiasm, to consider giving life on a small farm a shot! Some of these pilgrims land running, maybe not certain what they’ll need to do in the months and years ahead, but ready to take on whatever comes! All power to ‘em! And now, whenever I pick up one of those books, I sometimes find my own latent enthusiasm being rekindled, thinking, “Gal dern’it, I think I can still do that!”—forgetting that I’m not 45 anymore, but a few weeks shy of 70.
The problem is that, with the plethora of these enthusiastic go-getter books, there’s a corresponding absence of books about what to do with a small farm once the kids have all moved away, leaving you alone to do all the outside “farming” chores, while you’re reaching retirement age, with the strength and stamina of an old coot.
This is a little of what this weblog is about: What do my wife and I do with these 40-acres, as we consider “retirement” with no particular need to make money from this land? It’s certainly not that we’re wealthy, but rather I’ve never been able to make enough money from this farm anyway to make the effort worth it. Oh, sure, there’s all the idealisms about how beautiful, enriching, and invigorating it all is just to be outside, out in nature, out with the critters, doing farm work! Well, that’s all well and good, except when it’s 6 degrees below zero, as it was this morning, with 8-inches of drifting snow, the cattle are up in the hills far away in the back pasture, their water trough is frozen, and they’ve eaten the last of the hay, so that, even though my joints are killing me, I’ve got to walk through the snow down and up a hill to the barn to get the tractor to haul another round bale, but the tractor’s frozen, so I have to plug it in for an hour, and, oh, I’m out of round bales, so I have to first thaw out and then drive my frozen truck and trailer 10 miles on icy back roads to the nearest farmer who can sell me a round bale, and then haul it back, unload it, and then once the tractor’s thawed, use the 3-point-spike to precariously lift and haul the round bale up the snowy slope to the cattle, and quickly drop the bale, jump off the tractor, and unravel the bale-mesh before the bull decides, as he normally does, to attack the round bale to show it who’s boss! All of this by myself, and long before my morning coffee has even had a chance to awaken some sense of hopefulness to this new day!
Which is why it finally became obvious that it was time to bid A Farewell to Bovines. I truly love cows (regardless of what the environmentalist wackos claim their flatulence does to the ozone layer). Off and on for 20+ years, I’ve rotationally grazed dairy and beef cattle, always just a few at a time. Our hilly, mostly clay and partially wooded property lends itself to pretty much nothing else. Periodically surrendering to the guilt of needing to do something useful and productive with this land, I’ve adopted a system of semi-mob grazing, using polytape and step-in posts, that is supposedly good for improving the land as well as keeping the cattle on grass almost year round. Problem is, this is almost as labor intensive as keeping a dairy cow, since semi-mob rotational grazing requires moving the cattle into a new polytape contained paddock every 12-hours, 24/7/365.
But without additional help, especially with no one to fill in for me when we’re gone, it became increasing apparent that it was time to “retire” from cattle farming.
We presently had a poled Hereford family: a gentle, 1500+ pound 5-year-old bull named Curley, a 3-year-old “freshened” heifer, and a 11-month old bull calf. After considering many options over many months, we narrowed all the options down to one: butcher the bull ourselves on the property, and then give the heifer and calf away to our oldest son, who, in partnership with a young farm family, could raise beef for their two growing families.
You might be wondering, “Wait, did you say butcher the bull yourself? On your own property? Why, in God’s Name, would you do that?!!” Well, for lots of reasons, but mostly because, due to the way our culture has responded to the Covid pandemic, all the butcher shops within driving distance are booked into next year! So, I took a butchering class, and with some friends with butchering experience, we butchered Curly right where we dropped him.
I won’t go through all the details of our day-long endeavor—which included my able friends doing most of the work, and my chasing, for over a mile across snowy hills, the escaped heifer—but in the end, mostly because of the mercy of God and the skills of everyone else except me, Curley the bull is now hanging in two coolers aging for two weeks, and the heifer and calf have a new home.
This morning I woke up as usual at 4 AM; Marilyn was back asleep after a restless night. It was -6 degrees outside and mostly cloudy. I made coffee, which is hard when you really need coffee before you can make coffee! I fed our herd of cats, brought an armload of wood upstairs, rekindled the fire in our Hearthstone stove, and then quickly checked my eNews app to make sure our country was still here! With coffee in hand, before going up to do Morning Prayer, I paused by the fire, glancing out the window, across the snow covered valley, over to our now empty 100-year-old barn, and, with a toast of my cup, said to our generous Creator: “Lord, I’m grateful that those 1000 cattle You own are now safely on someone else’s hills.”