Little Things Take So Long or Death By 1,000 Pin-Pricks: How We Made a Shack that was Unfit to House Livestock a Cozy and Comfortable Home (sort of)

If you're wondering why you may not have heard from us for a while, why we don't seem able to return phone calls, answer e-mails, remember birthdays or generally what day of the week it is, or recall if our underwear is right-side-out, there is only one thing to blame: THE HOUSE. It is the great culprit that has been stealing of all our time, energy, health, and sanity. It is best to begin at the beginning.When we first took this job, part of the agreement was that Spring House Meats would provide our housing. A few weeks before we were scheduled to begin work, we went up to the farm to figure out our housing options. At first, we thought we would live in a house on the hill with our fellow farmer, Erin Kirley, but another house had become available. Malanyon, who had worked on the farm for some time, decided to move on, so the house he had been occupying could be ours. Great, I thought. We went to look at it. What we saw would have sent any sane person running. At first impression, the exterior of the house looked cute: a typical well-worn, maybe even care-worn, little old farmhouse. The interior, however, was less forgiving. The word squalor comes to mind or maybe something stronger, a word that could strike at the very essence of filth. The disrepair was beyond words. The "living" room was blanketed in rat droppings that crunched like gravel under our feet. The metal sink and shelves in the kitchen were rusted, and rats had pilfered through every cabinet leaving plentiful evidence. Many long, thick snake skins decorated every crevice in the ceiling. Red wax dribbled down the walls in places. Unholy black dust fell like atomic snow from cracks in the ceilings and could be found behind every floorboard. The wood stove had been used as a trash can, filled with chip bags and coke cans and, as we later saw, a half-burned pair of men's underwear. You shouldn't be surprised at this point, but parts of the ceiling were rotted through. The floor in the kitchen could have been a trampoline. Window panes were missing and would fall out at the lightest touch, and spiders ruled the four corners of every room. Some insane person had put, and by "put" I mean nailed and stapled, greenish-yellow shag carpeting in the kitchen, where Malanyon had left peanut butter and canola oil open for God knows how long. The house looked as if its occupant had been abducted mid-way through making a sandwich. What was our response when we saw all this? "Great! Oh, this will be great, sure, we can do this, it's cute, it's got potential, it's just dirty, sure Jamie, we can clean this up. We can knock this out in two or three weeks!" Oh, oh, the naïvety! It's almost painful. No, it is painful. Call it excitement or blind enthusiasm, for blind it was. The fact of the matter is, we were out of our effing minds.Fortunately, Amy had Malanyon do the initial clean-up. When we got to work on the house, the rat-droppings were gone, the carpeting ripped up, and all of the appliances were removed except for the fridge. The pictures here begin with the house as it was when we started working. Sadly, or perhaps blessedly, all record of the way the house first looked is lost. We began with bleach. Lots and lots of bleach. Then, demolition. We tore out everything we could. Sheetrock, flooring, cabinets; did I mention we were insane to do this? When the carpeting was pulled out we found two layers of pre- World War Two linoleum underneath in various states of decay. We did well ripping it out with our gloved hands and respirators (asbestos is fun!) but we eventually had to go at it with a shovel. We found that the windows were not so much "installed" as they were "set" in their rough openings and held there by the trim. We tore out the mouldy sheetrock in the bedroom to find lovely beadboard walls, but they were so full of cracks and holes that no amount of wood epoxy could repair them. It should also be mentioned that the primary problem with the house is the fact that it does not have a true foundation. "A ship of ancient beams on a sea of moving stone" is how Ross describes the problems. Typical of the period the house was constructed, the foundation is pier and piling, which are wood beams and stone piles set on the ground. Trouble is, after about 100 years the ground and thus the stone and wood tend to move around a bit. The floor of the house is a visible arc. If you are in the bedroom you have to walk uphill to get to the living room. If you're in the living room you go downhill to the kitchen. As a result of all this pushing and pulling walls have separated from each other and from the ceiling and floorboards have pulled apart. All these factors plus no insulation rendered the house a sieve. So, in the process of filling in as many holes as possible with the amazing wonderful thing that is Great Stuff, we insulated. How, you might ask, does one insulate into walls that already exist without tearing them down? Why, with a hole-saw drill-bit, a rented insulation machine from Home Depot, duct tape, the top of a water bottle and lots and lots of cellulose. Insulating the house is a good example of what just about every day of housework was like.It begins with a trip to Home Depot. We probably spent a total of 30+ hours over the past two months inside Home Depot. Ross went to rent the 200lb insulation machine and purchase insulation, I went to get other things we needed for other projects: Rustoleum, masking tape, duct tape, drywall screws, etc. An hour later, we loaded the machine and everything else into the back of Jamie's truck and drive back to the farm. By now it is about 10am. We look around the house and see that part of the wall needs to be shorn up before we can start drilling into it. Then we discuss the relative merits of putting a vapour barrier up before we re-sheetrock. Then we get a phone call that the pigs have gotten out and help is needed to herd them back in and fix the fence. It is now 2:00 in the afternoon. We stop because we are both starving and drive to Trout Lily to pick up a sandwich. We set up the insulation machine after we call Home Depot to let them know we will need the machine for an extra day. We find an empty water bottle, cut it in half, and affix it to the insulation machine hose with duct tape to use as a spigot between the hose and the hole in the wall. We drill the first hole. The beadboard gets stuck in the hole-saw drill bit and we cant get it out. We spend half-an-hour getting the wood out and deciding if we need to go get a new drill-bit. We decide not to and keep going. We stop because the insulation we are blowing in is blowing out the "naturally-formed" holes in the walls and ceilings. We duct tape them shut. We continue. We stop. There is a flow problem in the hose and air is blowing but no insulation is coming. We spend an hour with the hose, a flashlight and a metal yardstick loosening the insulation so that it flows again. It is now 6:30pm and we have to stop. Only one wall is completed. Everything. I mean EVERYTHING, we did to this house went like this. Nothing was simple or straightforward, nothing could be done right the first time, nothing could be done right efficiently. One-hundred years of neglect and "git-er-done" attitude had taken its toll on this house to its very core; we fought back tooth and nail, blood, sweat, and tears. I couldn't begin to document and discuss every task we tackled on this house, but I took pictures of quite a lot of it, which is as good a way as any of showing you what we did.

Here is the house as it was when we started working:


This is the kitchen and laundry room


Open the door and see The Bathroom


The brightest room in the house, The Living Room


And the Bedroom

Notice the thick layer of grime all over everything. Let’s move on to the demolition. Here is the bedroom again:While Ross and Clay tore out a lot of this sheetrock, I spent the day working on the kitchen sink. The sink had not been cleaned. It was still covered in rat feces that had to be Shop Vac'd out before we could take it out of the house. It’s a really old, beautiful, retro metal sink, but it was so rusty and nasty. Armed with gloves, tarp, a respirator, a steel-brush, and about 7 cans of rustolium, in 7 hours, I restored it:

Sink Under RehabSink Under RehabSink Under Rehab 


On another day, we got up under the house to check things out. Only, we couldn’t because there was about $90 worth of scrap metal in the form of old farm equipment parts, chairs, and a pair of shoes under there.

Junk Tractor Parts from Under the House

After most of the demolition was completed, we started insulating and putting things back together. Here is the old, filled-in fireplace. We removed the mantle from the old, filled-in fireplace and pulled out some of the rotten sheetrock. Now, generally, sheetrocking is something that, once you know how to do it, it’s pretty easy. Not so here. This house slopes. It slopes a lot. The ceiling sags. Each. Tedious. Individual. Piece. Of. Sheetrock. Had. To. Be. Custom. Cut. And. Measured. Within. One-quarter. Inch. Then mudded and taped. Then primed. Twice. Then painted. Twice. And that’s just the walls.One night, Tim and Clay came by to help out. The four of us were consumed with replacing the fixtures in the shower. It required copious amounts of sawing, lots of hair pulling, and about 4 hours: just to remove the old fixture! (picture)On one occasion, coming home from Home Depot with floor and ceiling trim in the back of the truck, the wood chewed through the polytwine and $60 flew out the back of the truck and can still be seen (update: a state convict crew has removed the wreckage) in all its many bits and pieces on where 74-A intersects with I-40. Shall I go on? The glazing on the windows was crumbling away or gone completely. Ross and I stood outside for hours in the cold wind and snow on top of a ladder putting sub-zero window glaze and new panes in. We masked and painted every wall and ceiling we could get our hands on. We tore out all the kitchen cabinets. We went to Ikea and spent a week rebuilding and installing new ones. We bevel-cut trim and hung it. We replaced rotten floorboards. We put in two new windows. We used expanding foam everywhere. Ross spent two days under the house rewiring in a crawl-space that over half of is too short to even belly-crawl into. We put in new plugs and light fixtures. Then, after all that, we had to move in. Actually, we had to move in before the house was done, which is a whole other story. . .We should have torn the whole thing down and started afresh.The thing to know, to really keep in mind about renovation is that you may have what looks like a very reasonable list of things to accomplish, but you may never get past the first task. You need, as my mother’s favourite piece of Engrish from an instruction booklet suggests, to “get some people to help you.” Or, as the epigraph on one of the renovation books we used states (or perhaps cautions) the old adage, “Many hands make work light.” But in our case, many hands we seldom if ever (forgive me) on hand. And so, after many weeks and several months, the house became what it is today. It is as if it feebly approached the “charm” I had hoped for —and then gave up. It is way below our normal, acceptable standard of living, and constantly dances the line between habitable and uninhabitable. I cannot imagine the house without insulation as I watch little bits of grey cellulose blow in onto my bedside table from where the house is separating from itself. We are making do, which sometimes, is all you can do.My hope is that this house is in no way a foreshadowing of our future as farmers. What I mean is this: after lots of thought, it has occurred to me that in our aspirations to become outstanding farmers, we may have bitten off more than we can chew; there may not be enough people to help along the way, and the end-product may be less than satisfying. But then, the reality becomes clear: this house does not have to foreshadow anything so long as it is a source of learning. Ross and I now both know what it takes to change something that is both old and broken. We know just how much work it can be and we know what it demands of us. We may yet be able to change the practice of farming, but mark my words: we will never renovate again.

Greener Pastures

So, Ross and I have made an executive decision, we’re leaving the farm. Not farming. Just this farm. We are not leaving because we don’t like farming or don’t enjoy the work. We do. But as we have been in the farming world we see that there are needs that go beyond what this particular farm can help us fulfil. We are searching for a new opportunity, one that will help us to best use our talents and that will help to garner new ones in the pursuit of a new and better agriculture. One that, if you have read the previous blog post you will know, invites others to join the process rather than deters them with the persistently menial, mediocre, and disorganised. We are looking to learn a way of growing food that is more interested in agriculture for what it is: full of beauty and joy and pride of work. Maybe we are much too idealistic. Really, we just want to learn to grow vegetables and raise animals in tandem with one and other. A surprisingly difficult thing to find considering how much sense it makes. Oh, and we want to teach kids, too. The point is, we’ve got a lot to learn if we’re going to achieve any of this and we’re not learning what we need to know here. So, we’re off to find greener pastures. We’ll keep you posted.

Apophatic Farming

The other day I moved a pig waterer. I moved this pig waterer all by myself. Let me elaborate: a pig waterer is a large, pill-shaped barrel with a box of valves that, like a toilet tank, is capable of refilling as it empties to ensure a constantly full tank. However, because swine use this device it takes on a whole new level of nasty that no human-used toilet could possibly hope to achieve. Pigs like to wallow. They like to wallow where there is water because water makes for mud. Pigs go hand and hand with mud. Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of a pig is its proclivity to relieve itself with reckless abandon and total disregard for the other uses of an area. You see where I'm going with this? If you've never smelled swine urine before, try soaking a loaf of mouldy bread in ammonia and spreading Roquefort all over it. Let it sit and continue to funcktify outdoors for several weeks, and you start get the idea. And, of course, to top it off, somehow a large quantity of wallow slop managed to find its way into this waterer, making it absurdly heavy. So, there I am, standing in a pig wallow, holding my breath away from the ammonia that so wants to burn my lungs, contemplating why in the hell I am doing this. The pigs already have another waterer in their new field. It functions perfectly. It satisfies their needs. Why, oh why, am I here? And thus, I ponder all the oddities, and shall we say, idiosyncracity of this farm. A few days prior to this messy situation, I had a kind of breakdown of frustration. In that moment, I felt like all the things I have thus-far learned in my time here, the list of what not to do towered over all other knowledge gained. I was frustrated by my feeling that the whole operation seemed to magically run on nothing more than a wing and a prayer. Yes, I was having an emotional freak-out, but I knew there was truth in my feelings. Don't mistake me: what the Ager's have done is amazing; they run a sound, ethical, and functional business, but  organisation and systemisation of regular tasks is much needed. I often find myself walking around being very critical of my surroundings, which is not a healthy or happy place to be.

I have found among farmers, as well as business owners in general, there is limited incentive to change as long as what's in place works, however inefficiently. Please, don't misunderstand; this is not an attack on the farm or it's infrastructure. I remind myself that this is not my farm. By this, I mean that I do not pass judgement on the Ager's operation. I still have a lot to learn; what they are doing works for them and there are many lessons in their experience. Every farmer finds for themselves the ways that work for the particular circumstances on their farm. That is, in essence, what farming is all about. But one of these lessons is a lesson I am teaching myself. These moments of frustration are serving as a frame for creating my own philosophy and attitude towards farming.

Every day, I find myself gravitating towards an attitude of farming akin to that of Masanobu Fukuoka, what he calls the "do nothing" way of farming. The idea is the observation of natural systems as the text by which a farmer learns to create and nurture these systems so that nature does most of the work. Such a framework can take so much of the "drudgery" out of farming. One thing I am learning from my frustration, as well as from readings (both historical and current) and conversations among other farmers, is that the reputation for drudgery that farming has is the result of a lack of innovative thinking, observation, and implementation of self-sustaining systems. In short, the prevailing attitude of many farmers is that if it works, do it, and don't change it. I say different. I say always try to make it better, make it easier, make less work for yourself, make the land more healthy, more productive. Some farmers would say that there's a line between practicality and idealism in farming. I also disagree. I believe that the two can go hand and hand. In order for a system to be ideal, it also has to be practical. There are ways to do this and it is imperative as a new generation of farmers that we do do this. We must make the innovation of self-sustaining systems a priority. It is no wonder that no one wants to farm. We are so culturally blessed in this era; life presents so many amazing opportunities: time for art, travel, and leisure. If we are to continue to have good food in future generations, we must allow the farmers time and space for pleasure. The only way to do this is to cease the "micromanaging" of our food-systems, from on the molecular level of industrial farming all the way to the most organic and sustainable of farms. I want to work to find the ways that are easy, but no less effective. They are there.

So, after a few minutes contemplation and the surrender to the fact that "this is not my farm" I heaved the pig waterer out of the wallow, emptied it of sludge, and with every muscle in my body lifted it three feet in the air onto the truck bed and, with a pleased sense of accomplishment, drove it to the new pig field, where I couldn't hook it up because there is no system for hooking up waterers. Each one has a different set of hoses, joints, and valves that is a new lesson in plumbing every time one is set up. And there I was, again frustrated, but ready to learn.

As with so many things that have been worthwhile in my life, there is a certain love-hate relationship that develops. This farm is no exception, which is encouraging. I think the part I hate is the part that pushes me, and what I love is the feeling of when I push through. I get frustrated, then I put on my big-girl-panties and do it anyway. I think this is one of the best lessons of what farming is, no matter how many systems you have, no matter how easy and productive you could possibly make it, there is a push and a pull, a love and a hate, a mix of frustration and ease. It is a whole new kind of job satisfaction. Here, I am learning, for me, what farming is through what, for me, farming is not.

Pigs are Drama Queens

Miss Piggy It has occurred to me recently, that of all the things that happen on this farm, the pigs seem to attract the most attention. Rarely do we ever discus how the cows did something crazy, or how the sheep kept us busy chasing them for hours. No, it’s all about the pigs. Pigs are prima-donnas. A case in point: yesterday evening, after a long day of fence-work, Kirley and I went to move the pigs. Sadly, a young pig had died in the back of one of the pig-houses. Less sad and more disgusting, it had not died recently. It’s crusty, wrinkly skin held what might have been jell-o squishing inside its bloated body. Need I bother to describe the smell? Ikk. Kirley, who was far braver than I (who wanted to go get a shovel and a wheel barrow), borrowed my gloves, grabbed onto its four feet, and carried it through the pig field and tossed it into a ravine. I would like to take this moment to let everyone out there know that Erin Kirley is amazing. After that, the two of us took the evening off early. I tossed my gloves into the washer with lots of bleach, cooked and ate pork ribs (the very recipe below), and thought to myself: it wouldn’t be worth it if they didn’t taste so damn good.

The Trouble With Pigs

You hear it over and over that pigs are the most intelligent farm animals. People often say pigs are smarter than dogs. Intelligence comes in a lot of varieties, however, and the pig's greatest talent is for stubbornness. Now, I'm not just slandering the species because of my constant frustration with escaping swine, though they have a Houdini-like proclivity for moving through electric fences. The stubbornness of a pig extends even beyond its own best interests. You can open a gate, sixteen feet wide, and the pig will still try to root up and ram through the fence two feet to the right of the gate. It prefers to move in a straight line, obstacles be damned. But unfortunately, even as a member of the species that claims to be wisest of the wise, I can't claim that we are above such singlemindedness. Names and faces have been changed to protect the innocent: Recently Rebecca and I had the opportunity to observe the annual winter meeting of the West Timbuktu (ahem) Farmers Market (WTFM). Several things are wrong to begin with: the member farmers of the market, who govern it, only meet twice a year; the market schedules its meetings on the same day the weekly market occurs, that is to say after a long, hard day of work; and the market has no formal decision-making process other than a show of hands. The result is an agenda with a dozen major points of discussion on it, none of which can possibly be resolved in a single meeting. The attempt to do so without any organizing principle for the meeting leads to three hours and change of meandering discussion, arguing, bickering, and outright misconstrual.

Members of the market divide themselves into old-school and new-school. The old-school marketers tend to be truck farmers who grow a great variety of vegetables in their back yard and go to the market for enjoyment and supplementary income. The new-school are folks, such as the farmers I work for, who derive their entire livelihood from the land. These folks are interested in running the market profitably but fairly. The WTFM has been around for 25 years and was founded by the old-school. They think of the market as a convenient place to make a few bucks on a Saturday. The new-school sees the market as a community forum, a cooperative business venture, and, to some, a platform for social change. The new-school would like to see the market expand gradually but substantially. The old-school is a priori opposed to change.

The new farmers know that, to expand, the market needs a dedicated manager to enforce rules, work with the press to promote the WTFM, and take care of general secretarial duties. In the present arrangement these tasks are handled by member farmers who, during market season, hardly have enough time to tie their shoes. The new-school wants to hire a part-time, passionate young person to book advertisements ("Vine-ripe tomatoes available next week!"), hire performing artists ("Steel String Theory appearing next week at the West Timbuktu Farmers Market!"), and manage the market's general business ("Wow, we really have $1000 left over in the budget!?"). The old-school won't see the logic in this and argues that the only people who would apply would be, like themselves, looking to pick up a few extra bucks on the weekend. Obviously they've never heard of Slow Food, WWOOF (Willing Workers on Organic Farms), the organic or local food movements, or militant veganism. I can think of at least six people, just among my own friends, who might cut off a toe to get a job like this one; forget being paid for it; forget that Asheville is full of underpaid, over-motivated neo-Aquarians

The controversy between new- and old-school is mainly over money. The current fee structure requires member farmers to pay $25 per year in dues. Do the math: that's 7¢ per day, two bucks a month. Day members, who have access to five slots on a first-come, first-served basis, pay $5 per day and stop paying after 6 visits, which means they effectively pay the same as permanent member farmers without getting a reserved space. This allows the market to pay for insurance, about three newspaper ads per season, and six mentions on the local NPR station. The new-school would like to raise the permanent member dues to $50 per year and day member fees to $25 per day with no maximum. Day members make an average of $400 per market day; some make over $1000. That alone justifies the increase in day member fees; they simply haven't kept pace with inflation, and I don't think that they have changed since they were set in the mid-80's. The old-school argues that "no one would come" if the market raised day fees. As for permanent member fees, $50 per year amounts to about $4.00 per month, less than a gallon and a half of gas. The old school argues that the increase is too steep and many people stated that it would be a financial burden on them that might prevent them from taking part in the market. I don't know the economics of their lives, but I do see how much produce they sell on a Saturday.

So, the meeting went on for three hours and nothing was decided. We pigs butted heads and compared snout lengths, but got no closer to the other side of the fence. I may be frustrated with the perspective of the old-school, but the new-school shares no less blame for the lack of progress. These folks badly need to learn the meaning of consensus. The embittered stubbornness over $25 per year is the reason so many old farmers were driven out of business: a complete unwillingness to adapt old ways in order to preserve them.

Death to Turkeys

There are now 38 more dead Turkeys in the world. At 5:30 in the morning, Ross and I pulled on our coats and headed down the hill. We met Kirley and Ty (our fellow farm-workers) dressed in rubber boots; prepared for a messy day. We raised all our hoods, put on gloves and went bird-napping in the before-dawn dark. It is a surreal thing; approaching a flock of Turkeys out in a field, in the dead of night. It felt like doing something illicit, like we should have been wearing balaclavas. The first part of killing pastured Turkeys is catching them. One catches Turkeys by, well, grabbing them, sort of bear-hug style to keep them from flapping and scratching at you. Fortunately, they are more docile at night, though the first one Kirley caught went for her face with its beak. They are both heavy and strong, so sometimes, when I caught one, their sheer weight caused me to drop the beast. I tell you, it took some adrenaline to do it. There were no severe injuries, thankfully. We gently set each bird, individually into the livestock trailer. Only when there were three left did catching them become really difficult. They seemed to realise that their numbers had dwindled dramatically and that those birds that left did not seem to be coming back. We decided to grab all three of them pretty much at once to avoid a showdown, which more or less worked, except I lost my nerve and Kirley had to come grab my solitary, slightly panicked bird. Once we successfully loaded the turkey's we drove about forty minutes to Jamie's buddy Sean's house. He has a really great poultry processing facility in his yard that was completely worth the trip, especially considering that where we normally process is in plain view of where the elementary school children tour around the farm on a daily basis. Sean is an interesting guy. He's tall, lanky, and his hair is balding but for a horseshoe of black ringlets that give him the slight appearance of a Hasidic Jew in carhart overalls. He believes in the most insane conspiracy theories, his wife is a bit of a Jesus-freak (but in a good, not-at-all-scary way), and I later found out that that pistol his five-year-old son, who was running around with his two-year-old sister playing cowboys with, was real. Despite these unnerving characteristics, Sean's a cool guy. He has a couple of Milking Devon's and Jersey's, both heritage breeds. When we got there, Sean was milking the Devon who was red, horned, and bad-tempered. Milking Devons were the first cattle brought to North America by the pilgrims. There's only about 400 left in the world. Sean sees the importance of preserving the genetics of an historical breed, so he raises a few. By the time we finished milking and had a cup of coffee, the scalder was hot enough to begin slaughtering and butchering.

Jamie, our fearless and very experienced leader, started the process. He grabbed a turkey by its feet. It flapped around for a minute. Really, I couldn't help admiring how beautiful they are in this contorted position; arching their back and neck in this lovely "S" shape, wings outstretched. He gently put the bird, head-first into a silver cone and reached in to coax the turkey's fleshy head out the bottom. With a knife I wished were a bit sharper, Jamie found the artery in the bird's neck, just below it's head, and slit it open. Jamie really was a master at this. The bird flapped and struggled minimally, and stayed fairly clean. Kirley went next. She had slaughtered chickens before, but was more intimidated by the turkeys. She wasn't altogether sure of herself, but bravely (and now I think I understand where the turn of phrase comes from) took a stab. Her inexperience showed, as did that of everyone else there who slaughtered except for Jamie. Their cuts were much less precise, which I think did hurt the birds, as well as caused them to struggle a lot more. I use struggle gingerly. It was difficult to tell if the bird was alive or dead when it flapped around (only once actually pulling itself out of the cone, which was difficult to watch). I was sure that it was a "chicken with its head cut off" type of reaction where the nervous system shuts down by erupting violently, but I questioned it, since every time Jamie killed a bird this did not happen nearly as much. I was the only one who chose to refrain from killing. Maybe it was lack of courage, but I rationalised that I wanted to watch, learn, and to try to get my head around the idea of killing and how to do it better. I also reasoned that I lacked access to a sharper knife, which I am sure makes the process less painful for the birds.

The way I understand it, the reason the slitting of thoughts with a sharp knife is the preferred method of slaughter is this: think for a moment if you have you ever been cut with a sharp knife, a really sharp knife. If so, you probably didn't notice right away. You probably saw blood before you ever felt pain. Now, think of a less common injury, that of massive blood loss. Most people who have experienced heavy blood loss describe the sensation as a kind of fading, a swimming in and out of consciousness, or a dreamy, light-headedness. The idea behind slaughtering animals this way is that it is relatively painless and because of blood-loss, death happens quite comfortably for the animal. But the whole time we were killing turkeys, despite these thoughts, I couldn't help but wonder if this concept of "giving death" anthropomorphises these animals too much. Pretty much everything we did to these birds was better, less painful, and certainly less gruesome than what happens to them in nature. I remember going out into the sheep pasture one morning and finding a dead sheep; it's head and shoulder twisted unnaturally and all its internal organs removed. And on another morning, feeding the turkey's one dead, nothing left but bones and feathers in a brown, rotting heap. Another Turkey was sick. It's wing had somehow been broken, and as it steadily became worse, its own kind pecked it and abused it until its head was a bloody, grey mess and Ty finally, mercifully snapped its neck. We are so concerned for the mercy of the animals we eat, much more so than nature ever is. I can't help but wonder if this is another way that we have separated ourselves from nature, or if it is somehow in our nature to be merciful and to not want to cause harm and pain.

So, with those thoughts in my mind, I resigned myself to the process of scalding, plucking, eviscerating, and packaging. In order to pluck a bird easily, you have to heat the skin in water to just the right temperature for just the right amount of time. The machine is kind of like a rotisserie that pushes the bird with a metal plate in and out of the hot water for several minutes. The stink of hot wet dead bird became quite rank after mere minutes. Then, you pick up the hot, wet, dead bird that, mind you dry, already weighs some 40lbs, and wet at least 10 more, and hoist it into the plucker. The plucker is a large, stainless steel barrel lined with rubber, carrot-shaped nubs. When you turn the plucker on, the bird whirls around inside and the nubs serve to pull the feathers out in some mystery of physics I don't understand. It's pretty intense, watching this animal flap about, neck broken, being removed of its feathers. Then we pulled them out onto a table, removed the feet and heads, split open its belly and removed its entrails. I did a lot of this. I think because at this point the animal was becoming food, and I just sort of resonated with it. It was systematic and fascinating. Then the birds were cleaned with cold water, bagged, weighed, labelled, and put in the chest freezer. It was sort of amazing, having something that was alive not half and hour ago now bagged up and in a freezer, utterly changed, even unrecognisable from its original state. The whole process for 38 birds took about eight hours, including an hour lunch break and clean up. I learned all kinds of amazing and miraculous things about bodies and biology. It was such a powerful thing to see a 5 gallon bucket of blood set out for a few hours. It coagulated into a jello-like substance that was thick and dark and beautiful. There were buckets of unusable entrails, heads and feet and lungs, translucent oesophagus's, and bright green bile; yellow, shining intestines all twisting and curving. We bagged up livers and gizzards that were purpley and iridescent. I know, it seems so gross when I say it here in writing, but I can't stress how mesmerisingly beautiful it was to see: like a mystery of creation all laid out plain and vulgar, but no less mysterious.

By the end of the day I wasn't sure if I would ever eat turkey again, mostly due to the smell, but also, in part, due to the fact that my hands had the sensory memory of the soft squish of lungs being dug out of rib cages. We were all bloody, smelly, and exhausted. As we were driving away, I couldn't help but feel like I had been initiated, not only into the farm and the very essence of farming, but also into a shared experience of the rest of the world. In this month's National Geographic, there's an amazing photo of men in Bangladesh slaughtering a cow in the street. It's blood arches in a spray as the beast falls toward the ground, the men assisting in its death. The caption below reads that the slaughter is celebratory, in honour of Id al-Adha, a Muslim holiday in honour of Ibraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's request. The story, though differing in detail between the Judeo-Christian and Islamic versions, is read similarly in all three traditions. It is a story of ultimate devotion to the divine and unwavering supplication to the will of God. It also shows that obedience to God, though it my look grim and painful, is always reconciled with unanticipated mercy (remember, God stops Abraham at just the right moment). For Abraham and Isaac (Ibrahim and Ishmael) the horrible journey towards death, indeed a total willingness to both kill and to die without fear is rewarded with joy and relief in the form of a sheep, willing to die in Isaac's stead. Fundamentally, this story links sacrifice with celebration, death with joy. And so, Ibrahim's life-affirming sacrifice it is celebrated in the Muslim world with, what else but sacrifice. Animals are ritually and publicly slaughtered and shared among the poor.

The take home message is that animal slaughter is old, it is common, it is even elemental to human existence. It was so in the ancient world and is so today. Animals die so that people might live and this natural order is to be celebrated. It is perhaps difficult for us here in the safe, sterile comfort of the Western world to associate violence with happiness, but we must face this unassailable truth: death is life. Imagine for a moment the happiness a family must feel when they acquire a cow, sheep, or goat that they can use perpetually for food. An animal is a perpetual source because it regenerates itself in the cycles of life, birth, and death. This process is jarring to the uninitiated, (yet so many of us here in the US literally worship this process in the form of Jesus). Imagine for a moment the great physical pains of most of the world, both past and present, of just how dirty and foul it can get. We now, in this country, live in a kind of golden bubble. We have the privilege and indeed, luxury of constant and unwavering food supply. So many of us have the privilege of never seeing an animal die (to say nothing of seeing a human being die). So many have the privilege of spending only twenty-percent of our income on food. So many have the privilege of never bloodying our hands, never sullying them in the planting of seeds and harvesting of roots, of never having smelled the stench of dead things. In short, a great many of us have the privilege of never having to get dirty in order to live. But someone else, somewhere does have to get dirty, and too many of us have the privilege to ignore them. It is this division of people, clean and unclean: those who see death and are willing to die just as much as their food is, and those who think that separation from death is the way to life. This division I reject. So, I got to know death a little better through the sacrifice of 38 birds, 38 birds that will be used to celebrate our bounty, that will be used to remind us of how grateful we are, or perhaps, how grateful we should be, and that will remind us that gratitude is the deepest way we are happy.


So, long time, no write. Yeah, life on a farm; it's busy. It goes like this: get up at 6:30 in a great deal of cold, dress, scrape together some breakfast while listening to NPR, drive down the hill, feed and water horses, pigs, and turkeys, and sheep, do a  lot of different chores and projects, move the cows, finish projects for the day, drive home, shower, cook supper, eat, go to bed by 9ish. The chores and projects have been anything and everything: troubleshooting electric fencing, manning the farm store, weed-whacking the corn maze, cutting pumpkins, weed-whacking the pumpkin patch, moving the turkey house, putting up fencing, loading animals into trailers, driving to the butcher, making deliveries all over Asheville and Hendersonville, packing boxes, putting out trash, making apple cider, cleaning up the cider room, working on making our house habitable and free of wildlife, drafts, and mould, and herding pigs. I would like to take this time to discus herding pigs in more detail. As a rule, one should not not attempt it. My first experience herding these little pinkies landed me crawling miserably through thick labyrinths of multiflora rose where two very crafty little porkers kept retreating despite our very best efforts to get them to move with their buddies into the next field.  Let me tell you, a multiflora rose thicket can get the size of a large truck, and you can't see daylight out the other side. We considered getting our hands on a pneumatic air cannon, or else a couple of paint-ball guns to encourage our two fat friends out, but eventually abandoned our efforts and bush-hogged the field the next day.

On a separate occasion, we attempted to move seven pigs about a mile from one field to another. On the first attempt, they got as far as the gate, turned and ran all the way back. On the second attempt, they got as far as the gate, turned and ran all the way back. Mind you, this is seven pigs verses four adult humans. Very, very ,very gently, very calmly, we managed to get five pigs past the gate and into the pasture, two ran for it. One we abandoned and let him go wee-wee-wee all the way home. The other we cornered and managed to hold her within five feet of the gate. We reached a stalemate. She stood stock still. We stood stock still, slowly, we edged her towards the gate, but always she retreated. We waited, to see if she would go in on her own. We stood and looked at each other for a solid fifteen minutes before she finally decided, on her own terms, that she would join the other pigs in the pasture. Ever heard the idiom "stubborn as a pig"?

We're killing Turkey's at 5:30 tomorrow morning (before any more of them die of their own accord). Mmmmm, death for breakfast. . .

Fire bad. Tree pretty.

Simple concepts are the limit of our mental processing abilities at the moment. Packing is one thing, but the physical act of moving all one's worldly possessions from one place to another all in one go is, well, insane. I've lived a lot of places, traveled, and moved around, but never before with every, single, blasted thing I own. A teacher once told me that having books is a wonderful thing but a real impediment when one moves. It's true. Also on the list of impediments, I will add underpowered equipment. The 24-foot truck we rented drove like a kitten pulling a tractor. Ross, who drove the thing, bless him, said it was like captaining a ship: if you want to accelerate you have to send a message down to the steam room to tell them to throw more coal on. Thus, a three-and-a-half hour journey took about five. Mountains are big.

Our arrival at the farm was met with massive logistics; logistic gymnastics, really.

  1. Find a place to park the truck so that the 2,000 lb. car trailer can come off and be re-attached later
  2. Detach the trailer
  3. Stop half way through step 2 to remove the car
  4. Let the 2,000 lb. car trailer, that is no longer held firmly down by the truck, flip up as you remove the car
  5. Remove car
  6. Take cat to the farmhouse
  7. Build cat cage
  8. Discover the tool to build the cat cage is a piece of crap, find a different tool that will work
  9. Put cat in cat cage and make sure she has water
  10. Unload plants from truck
  11. Drive to storage unit
  12. Forget to borrow new employer's appliance dolly
  13. Rent appliance dolly from Budget truck place, which is two doors down behind The Trophy Club Gentleman's Establishment
  14. Arrive at storage unit, and back truck into loading dock
  15. Forget what our storage unit number is. Discover all paperwork is in a box. Somewhere.
  16. Call storage facility manager to get the unit number
  17. Find out we are in the wrong building of the facility and drive truck to other side
  18. Find correct unit and bring down truck ramp
  19. Align truck ramp with sidewalk
  20. Get large dolly onto truck
  21. Unload truck into storage unit
  22. Unload truck into storage unit
  23. Unload truck into storage unit
  24. Unload truck into storage unit
  25. Unload truck into storage unit
  26. Unload truck into storage unit
  27. Unload truck into storage unit
  28. Give friend directions to storage unit to help, tell him to bring lots of water
  29. Order pizza
  30. Eat pizza, drink water
  31. Repeat steps 21-27
  32. Organise contents of storage unit, maximise use of vertical space
  33. Organise contents of storage unit, maximise use of vertical space
  34. Panic that not everything will fit
  35. Take a deep breath and repeat steps 26-27
  36. Finish unpacking truck! Cheer loudly.
  37. Repack things that have to come back to the farm
  38. Clean up
  39. Take the amazing kid who helped (David) home and pay him
  40. Drive truck back to farm
  41. Unload things that need to stay at the farm into cars
  42. Align truck with 2,000 lb. car trailer. In the dark. On a hill. Twelve inches away from your new boss's truck.
  43. Attach car trailer and secure oh-shit brakes
  44. Discover that hi-quality trailer light connection panel is courtesy of Rent-a-Truck Nigeria
  45. Decide how we will get back to the farm after the truck is dropped off
  46. Drive to rental truck drop-off point
  47. Fill out paperwork
  48. Drive back to farm
  49. Find things we will need for the night
  50. Shower
  51. Sleep

You've no idea the sub-steps that are in-between. Fire bad. Tree pretty.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: the moment when the movement started

Today, I cleaned out my fridge. It was an act, at the time, born of immediate need. I confess, it smelled, it had been slightly neglected. And, of course, fridge cleaning is the great rite of moving. But cleaning the fridge is really a microcosm of the whole event of moving. All kinds of things lurk in the fridge. Many, very obviously, need to leave (the mould-forest growing on the pine nuts) while others are in a kind of limbo (a half empty bottle of barbecue sauce, two-thirds a bottle of mustard). Most I trash, but some grab at my heart. My jar of bouillon made a convincing plea. "I'm just so handy when you haven't made broth lately. Surely you'll want me. It don't ever go bad," the little jar seemed to say. Moving, for me, takes enormous focus as every item I own passes through my hands and must face the question: to trash, or not to trash? In my focus on these life-changing issues, however, I lose, for a moment, the real issue at hand: why am I moving? And not moving just to a new house, town, state, or job, but to the sum total of all these things: I am moving to a new life. Feeling a little shaky about this transition and the general upheaval of my existence, I was invited to, really, the perfect farewell to one life and the open-armed welcome to my new one.

I went to see Barbara Kingsolver speak about her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, in which she tells the story of her family's first year eating an entirely local diet. It was really wonderful. I was especially surprised that I knew so many people there. Usually when I go out, I might see one person I know… maybe. Atlanta, after all, is a big place. But this time it was my town; if I didn't know their name, I knew their face: Linda, who runs an amazing Feminist bookstore; Donna, my exceptional high school history teacher; Bob, my chiropractor; Joe, the man who sells me veggies at on of the local farm stands where I shop; my friend Sarah, a student at Emory; and several of the farmers whose produce I enjoy weekly. I was warmed by this incredible interest, not only among the general public, but among people I have known for years. I felt like I was finally in on something. I wasn't an outsider.

And then it dawned on me. I realised how involved in this whole local foods movement I am. I know these people; I share their likes and concerns. We know the same things. We know, as Ms. Kingsolver said tonight; we don't believe, but know that our conventional food production is a "limited-time-only deal." We are worried about that. We are worried because what we eat is more than what we are: it's the very face of the earth and moreover, the means by which we stay on it. It is the thing we use the most, and though we suffer the omnivore's dilemma of infinite choice in what we eat, we have no choice but to eat. But the strange part is, I knew all this before there was a "we."

I knew sitting in my mother's kitchen learning how to cook just by watching, by the pure osmosis of my mother's love in her food. I know this because, though I had my fair share of TV dinners and McDonald's apple pies, that nothing was more beautiful than the soft dimples of pastry laid over cinnamon-coated apples and that nothing on God's green earth beats supper at my mother's kitchen table. I was probably the only child in my pre-school who knew what asparagus looked like as they were coming out of the ground, and one of the few who spent summers eating blackberries off the vine that made my hands purpley-black. I realise now, after being in a room with hundreds of like-minded people, that there was something that had long-ago been born in me, dare I say, quite organically that really and truly is a part of something bigger. I realise now that I'm not towing the line, I'm creating it.

So, when I went home I let go of the canned bouillon. If there's no broth, there's no broth, and there will be something else for supper. I am starting here: in the pull to understand that it's not about what I want, it's about what there is. Ms. Kingsolver, in her experience, found that this practice led her family to a feeling of gratitude, which is not at all about being beholden but is the immense and joyous feeling that comes of having all you need and being happy about it. Cleaning out my fridge became my first act in this new life. Local eating isn't going to be something I work towards, or try to do, or even succeed at. It is going to be my life. I will work, breathe, and, yes, eat, local food.