"Cows are my passion. What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a farm and live entirely surrounded by cows–and china." Charles Dickens

September 24, 2012

Do Not Name Your Livestock if You Will Kill Them

"Big Red," front and almost center, in a recent photo of Eli for a project he did on oak trees for school.

Let me tell you about Big Red. He was a handsome steer, filled out, solid, sweet and kind. Last summer one of our boys had named him and, over the past few months, I had grown fond of him, too. He was among the cows we were keeping, because they will make fine bulls, like Edgar (whom I named after my husband brought him––cold, muddy and abandoned––from the knob pasture after Christmas), or "39" (because of her ear tag), Tess or Angel Clare who are all, or will be, great heifers. "39" will even let us pat her and come up to her in the pastures. These traits are good in cattle, especially if you are developing your own herd. You don't want a cow that is skittish or fearful or who might charge you, unprovoked, in the pasture. You also don't want a cow that will all too easily abandon its calf. Turns out, there are great mothers in the bovine world just as there are really lousy ones. You can never trust a bull entirely but if you have a gentle heifer or steer and continue to treat them well, you can maintain a kind of trust.

Big Red developed into a 968 pound beef cow in the past year just as his temperament was unusually kind and friendly for a pastured cow. There is no saying what kind of bull he would have made but I expect, as with Edgar, that he would have been fairly mellow. At first Big Red was being raised for our own freezer but then I got involved, and attached, and, well, to be honest, we all did. He was such a presence, even ham-like for photographs.

Last month a beef buyer was on the property and made a comment that Big Red would fetch a good price at market. We went back and forth as a family and last week my husband broached the idea again. I said, no matter what, I can not put him in the freezer and transform him into our simple farm cuisine. 

"Well, let's let the boys decide, they have raised and named him," I suggested, not willing to decide myself. So my husband did. 

While I was away at a few days respite and the Kentucky Women Writers' Conference in Lexington, I got the phone call.

"We put Big Red on a truck today."

I was digesting a lovely meal and about to see (what would be an unsettling few hours of cinema) The Master at the Lexington Theater with our daughter. The irony was not lost on me.

As the hours, and movie, went on I could not stop thinking about Big Red. What was he thinking? How was Edgar taking this? Why can't we keep them all?

Tess and Angel Clare, a female calf born on the Summer Solstice in 2012,
both have stays of execution on our farm because they can reproduce––and, I named them.

As our oldest son Henry said, with rhetoric and wisdom beyond his years, "Are we operating a cattle farm or a 'friendly' farm, Dad?" He has a point. We can not keep all of the animals that we raise and we clearly can not name them or pet them all, either. No wonder kobe beef is so expensive: all of that personalized pampering and attention.

Back at the hotel, I called my husband, now even more troubled by a strange and haunting, excellent, movie. I asked if he could reconsider Big Red's fate, knowing it was too late. You can't really buy back your own cow at an auction. You can, of course, but think of the scrutiny and the paperwork. Besides, Big Red would never reproduce and would be a 20 or so year commitment to feeding. Even if he and Edgar had seemed to form a relationship, it was not to be.

My husband said that Edgar let out a long moan as Big Red went up the road in the cattle trailer. I don't doubt it. We've heard cows mourn their dead on our farm in long, low, pitiful wails.

Cows are curious, sometimes friendly creatures, and more intelligent than we realize.

Raising cattle for meat, no matter how humanely they are treated and how free to roam our pastures, presents a great conundrum for me. I can not eat what I befriend and so most of the cattle are just that in my mind: cattle, livestock, black and brown dots grazing on pasture. It's a schizophrenic proposition. Unlike many women who raise chickens, I have not named one of my own. But some of the cattle I have named and if I've learned anything about farming it's that you do not name your livestock if you will kill them.

Big Red commanded $1,100 dollars at auction. I know he will help pay for many things on our farm but I can't help feeling like a mercenary meat eater, a master of destiny, a fraud.

You come back when you're ready! 


September 1, 2012

Ordinary Time

Anna's laundry takes her the better part of the day to do: meanwhile she is doing other things,
none of them electronic or wired in to the larger communications matrix.

A month ago, to the day, we had a small, rogue thunderstorm travel across our ridge. It happened as we were getting ready to leave for a funeral in Tennessee and just as quickly as it started, it was over. In the meantime, the rain was ferocious and lashing and the lightning and thunder clapped on top of our ridge farm. Before we ran to the car in the pouring rain, a terrific bolt of lightning hit just behind our house and there was a snap, crackle and pop. It took out our phone for several days, our solar light on the driveway, and, alas, my (very expensive) satellite internet system.

After a few mini-fits I realized a blessing had occurred. Make that a small miracle. First of all, this has been The Summer of Visitors: 25 days of June-August were spent entertaining friends and family alike here on our Kentucky farm (and this doesn't include the days spent back in New England on a wonderful visit with my eldest son, our daughter, my mother and various friends). Our daughter also returned in July for a few months before moving on to other things.

So this self-admitted recluse-with-occasional-social-inclinations has had plenty of "face time" (vs. Facebook) and real-time connections to sustain her through a quieter fall and winter. Each visit has been special and unique and now part of our arsenal of cherished memory. These visits, and more to come when I return to New England for a stretch in October, have been the greatest gift of my 50th year.

I've learned a lot in this month without Internet at the ready, just off my bedroom. Some of my reasons for not having a new satellite internet dish installed after the repairman said I had outdated equipment have to do with this article in The Atlantic ["Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"] as much as it has to do with the expense and frustration of it––not to mention that DSL is supposedly coming to our ridge this fall, although I now have to question whether I will even bother.

So here's what I've learned about myself and the way I have been spending my time:
  • The Internet is a luxury item and an exorbitant waste of time (most of the time);
  • I do not need to be checking Facebook several times a day or for great lengths of time (I've probably been on it an hour total in the past four weeks);
  • I do not need to be reading everything on the Internet (including stupid blogs and websites);
  • I do not need to "Google It" because, chances are, I really don't need to know it after all;
  • Real-time conversations trump virtual ones any day, even if they take more effort (eg. going off-ridge or having people stay with us or visit);
  • The phone is still a work in progress for me but I'm relearning the art of a quick note or letter (besides, I really don't want the US Post Office to become obsolete);
  • Emails can be short, sweet, or just deleted if they don't require a (short, sweet) personal response;
  • The Somerset Public Library completely rocks: both in its architecture and in its comfy chairs, expansive library tables, and free wifi;
  • My dusty Mac PowerBook G4, while slow and outdated, is a wonderful thing: it travels well, I can write on it, and my ear buds provide blissful musical interludes when the library (or other places) are too noisy;
  • Portable Internet devices are also wonderful things for photos and documents and things that need to be emailed to editors; and, finally (huge light bulb moment),
  • My domestic time is better spent without the distraction of the Internet.

My friend Anna can multi-task like no one's business: here she is canning peaches
with a grandchild on her left hip (not shown) and laundry on the line outside.
Our Old Order Mennonite friends don't use the Internet, something which seems
to tap my own focus and less intrinsic domestic abilities at times.

This is what I've done to offset the reality that I do not have the Internet at my finger tips:
  • I don't feel inclined to check Facebook now, and do so briefly when I log in off-farm;
  • "Google It" is no longer in my vernacular;
  • My house and guest-writing cottage is more organized than ever before;
  • We tend to eat more meals together, at the table;
  • I've gone walking a few times (more to come when it's not so hot);
  • My head space is clearer and less ADD-addled;
  • I've read more books and magazines, cover-to-cover, in the past month than I have in six;
  • I've been visiting more off-ridge;
  • I've been eating less;
  • I've been watching much less television, too (that might be the next thing to depart the house); and, finally (drum roll, please),
  • I've been writing more for publication (and upcoming writing workshops).
Obviously I've been blogging less in general and even gave up a blog, more or less, [GROW Casey County] when I realized, with our boys in school in another county and various other things, including time, that it was just too much. I need to focus on paid writing assignments and personal projects––and our own farm––more these days. Our boys are in a new school with increased homework demands, also, so there is that. It's all good. 

I try to recall the days when a big deal was clearing off my answering machine after a day at work or time out with friends: who called? Do people like me? It's really all about validation, or not feeling the need to be validated or connected. I still don't have a cell phone, either. And I guarantee, if you write me, I'll probably write back. And I always love lunch out with friends, too. So call me. Maybe?

The last of the summer hay––being pulled into the farm by our son Henry.

You come back when you're ready!