Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of Failed Farmers.

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TJ: just another yeoman farmer.

In celebration of July Fourth, let us remember Thomas Jefferson–founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence. By writing such a highfalutin document, however, Jefferson nearly outdid himself and overshadowed his greatest accomplishment, achieving the distinction as Virginia’s worst farmer.

Among neighboring farmers, the joke was Jefferson couldn’t even grow oats and thus merely fed his horses philosophy. This explained his horses’ poor condition. Jefferson’s friend Margaret Bayard Smith wrote, “He is a great agriculturalist and horticulturalist in theory, but practically, I imagine, he knows little of any cultivation, but that of flowers, of which he is extremely fond.”

The Danger of Mimicking a Master

Locals pretty much say the same about me. One farmer even called me “a great agricultural ignoramus.” Like Jefferson, I’m generally not good at growing anything but flowers or plants that end with the suffix -weed. At growing those two things, I excel.

Over the years, I’ve thought about writing important stuff like Jefferson. In fact, in college I started writing a serious epic poem in iambic pentameter called “My Grandma’s Pond,” but gave up when I couldn’t think of a good rhyme for the line, “Into the wind, I cast my plastic worm.”

If I wrote something as earth-shattering as the Declaration of Independence, I’d run the danger of people forgetting my bumper pigweed crop of 2016. Truth be told, I’d be sad if local farmers didn’t slap me on the back and ask, “How’s your pigweed looking this year?” 

When we bought the farmstead from my wife’s poppaw, I should have realized that Lowry was up to something. Right after we signed the closing documents, he leapt in the air and kicked his heels together. Little did I know at that point, Lowry had just offloaded his pigweed problem on me, his grandson-in-law. Pigweed had the farm besieged, and I soon found myself fighting an endless war to beat it back. In 2016, I grew such a great stand of pigweed you could barely spot a soybean. The feat won me the unofficial title as the county’s worst farmer.

Last year, however, I nearly goofed and grew a good crop of soybeans. If it wasn’t for a late summer drought, I would have had to scramble to keep my title as our county’s worst farmer. Recently, I’ve gotten a lot of competition from upstarts. One family rented a livestock trailer from the local farm supply. They forgot to secure the trailer’s door and let two cows roam a busy intersection.

Breakthroughs in Agricultural Theory

Pigweed: also known as the Devil Incarnate

Since buying the farm, I have, like Jefferson, studied up on agricultural theory and devised some promising methods for combating pigweed. For conventional farmers who are okay using agricultural chemicals, I recommend getting your hands on a barrel napalm. Since I’m nearly certain pigweed seeds can’t survive temperatures over 1000°F, I believe firebombing a field would be an effective way to eradicate pigweed.

For organic farmers, options are more-limited, but I believe procuring a small nuclear device (plutonium being all-natural) would suffice. According to my calculations, a small nuclear blast would release enough radiation to eradicate pigweed for several square miles. However, this method also runs the risk of causing pigweed to mutate and morph into a super-villain. Such a development could make farming in the future more difficult, even for the best farmers.

Anyway, enough nonsense. Happy July Fourth!

(FWIW, the internet believes Thomas Jefferson was an INFJ. You can read more about the INFJ propensity for farming failures in my post Farming Personality Types.)

Crows, the Old Field General, and Garden Warfare

A small garden, ha! What a punchline! I laugh every time I hear it, and I’ve heard it a lot. My wife’s poppaw Lowry is quite fond of the joke that precedes this punchline.

To do the joke justice, he starts out by pronouncing the fact that he’s downsizing his garden. In early spring, he may only plant a few rows of potatoes to really sell the setup. But by mid- June he’s wielding a hoe on a much larger battlefield, a certain glint in his eye as he fights once again with his mortal enemy, crabgrass. At this point, he says, “I’m getting too old for this” and then proclaims, “Next year I’m just planting a small garden.”

And it’s at this point where I laugh and say, “A small garden, ha!” Though I’ve heard that joke many times before–in fact, I hear it every year–I laugh, knowing next year his garden will be even larger. 

Older and Wiser

Lowry and Me

Lowry is now eighty-four. He has an old lawn chair that he sits in and looks out over his “small garden” like a field general. Field is an appropriate term because every year his garden grows in square-footage, to the point that his garden now encompasses a small field. The term general is also fitting because lately he’s been sitting in his chair with a shotgun.

His old foe, the crow, has been pillaging his rows of freshly-sowed purple hull peas, unearthing pea seed with precision beak strikes. But so far he’s been unsuccessful in repelling the crows. Over the years the crows around here have evolved and adapted their garden warfare tactics. The crows post lookouts in the trees near the garden and are long gone by the time Lowry shows up with his anti-aerial shotgun.

To be honest, I’ve started to worry about Lowry. Despite his big garden, he seems to have lost his fighting spirit. In years gone by, he would have concocted some elaborate crow-hunting blind to hide in and ambush his enemy. But now he’s just sitting around in the open for all the crows to see. I suspect the crows are probably ridiculing him in caws. Yesterday, I even walked up on him asleep in the lawn chair–shotgun across his lap. Not wanting to suddenly startle him while he was armed and dreaming, I just walked away and let him slumber. 

About thirty-minutes later, however, I heard a shotgun blast from the general direction of the garden. To be honest, I feared the worst: What if he had been having a nightmare, woke up confused, and blasted a watermelon? But when I got back to the garden, Lowry was grinning from ear to ear, a shotgun in one hand and crow in another. “I thought you were asleep,” I said.

His response: “And so did the crow.”

For another post on Lowry’s propensity for shooting, check out There’s a New Sheriff in Town. Also, here’s a funny story from the Small Farmer’s Journal on Lowry and my other farming neighbor called The Crowder Pea Peace Process.

Inheritable Farming Traits

I wonder if anyone ever studied the SPF value of grease and barn grime. Early in the summer, sometimes I look down at my arms and think that I’ve finally gotten my seasonal farmer’s tan, only to have the grimy patina wash off in the shower. But after a day drilling soybeans, I’ve gotten it this year; from the bottom of my shirtsleeves down, the brown color isn’t washing off.

home grown

My wife tells me I need to wear sunscreen. I try to, but most of the time I forget. I know one day I’m going to regret not wearing any, but secretly I’m kind of proud of my farmer’s tan. I may not be good at growing crops, but I can grow a first-rate farmer’s tan, and that counts for something.  I’ve got an even and well-distributed tan on all exposed surfaces (A farmer riding around and around on a cabless tractor is the human equivalent of a chicken turning on a rotisserie).  

My wife and I are bracing for our first child–June 30th is the scheduled date of arrival–and we’re hoping the baby has my skin complexion and ability to tan, my curly hair, my wife’s nose and generally, well, her whole face. We also hope the baby has ten fingers and ten toes, though we aren’t picky as to whom the digits take after. Admittedly, a lot of farmers around here are missing a finger, and I worry there might be a local genetic anomaly at play.

To be honest, I know very little about baby humans. And most of what I do know comes from my wife’s corrections. I know I shouldn’t use the term “scours,” especially in the presence of doctors and nurses, when referring to loose baby patties. I know I shouldn’t dip the umbilical cord in iodine–the doctor will handle that.

milk replacer

I know the correct term for store-bought baby milk is “formula,” not “milk replacer.” To be honest, I nearly fell over when I saw how expensive milk replacer was at the grocery store. For a much better price, I told my wife I could get a 50-pound bag of milk replacer at the farm supply. That’s when she said the correct term was “formula,” and that I couldn’t feed our baby Purina milk replacer.

Then, when we got to the baby bottle section of the aisle, my wife did that weird thing where she reads my mind. “No,” she said, before I could say a word, “you can’t use the calf bottles in the barn to feed our baby either.”

“But they hold a lot more than those bottles,” I said. “Using those dinky little things, we’d have to feed our baby more than twice a day.”

She just glared at me, like she does when I make a good point. Now that I think of it, I hope our baby has my ability to make good points.

Bottle3

Infrequently Asked Farming Questions

Why is hay called hay?

The word hay is derived from Greek. On sunny spring mornings, after the dew had dried, ancient Greek farmers would start cutting grass with a scythe, only to look up a few hours later, point to the sky, and utter the exclamatory expression, “Hαγ!” Soon thereafter, the ominous cloud building overhead would dump inches of rain, ruining the prospects for drying and raking the grass into haystacks. Then all the farmers would gather at the sale barn and curse the local weather oracles. Exclaiming “Hαγ” at clouds after downing grass occurred so frequently that the whole process became known as κάνοντας Hαγ, or “making hay.”

Ham comes from pigs, so why, pray tell, are hamburgers made from beef? 

pigs
These were the first two pigs we ever raised. The black and white one led the cliff-diving expedition.

That’s a question that has long plagued me. I bet it has something to do with the fact that most pigs belong to Mensa. Those smart little porkers probably tricked cows into volunteering for hamburger patties. Once, a pig convinced me to jump off a cliff. I won’t bore you with the details of that story, but if your mom ever asks, “If your best friend jumps off a cliff, would you follow?” I can pretty much cut to the chase and give you the answer if your best friend is a speedy piglet who dives into a groundhog hole just before the edge of a deep gully. In that case, you would go flying off the cliff while rotating your arms like helicopter blades.

What exercises best prepare new farmers for the physical demands associated with farming?

I’m assuming the questioner is just being polite and using “physical demands” as a euphemism for pain. To increase on-farm pain tolerance, I recommend the following workout routine, performed twice weekly. (Remember to consult your healthcare professional before starting any new workout routine, especially this one.)

1: Three Acres of Strawberry-Picking Toe Touches. This exercise focuses first on flexibility and second on straighten ability after prolonged periods of bending at the hips.

2: Whack a Finger. This exercise mimics the pain associated with on-farm hammer use. Take a hammer, pick a finger, and give it a good whack. You’ll know you did the exercise correctly when the fingernail falls off in two months. An advanced method involves remaining silent while performing the exercise.

3: Corral Dodge Bull. This exercise provides a good cardio workout that lasts as long as you can escape the bull’s horn, after which the exercise focuses on how to stick a landing after being tossed thirty-feet in the air.

4: Hive Tipping Sprints. This exercise increases speed under duress. Pick your meanest hive and tip it over to resemble a fresh bear attack. Try to outrun the bees.

Where did the expression “meaner than a Jersey bull” arise?

Some people suspect the Holstein Breeders’ Association coined the phrase. Likely, they merely mimicked the marketing tactics of the Copperhead Snake Handlers’ Association who pushed  the saying “meaner than a rattlesnake” into the collective consciousness. Personally, I’ve always found Jersey bulls and rattlesnakes unobjectionable, though I’ve hardly got to know any as individuals since I was too busy running in the opposite direction.

Chicago Bull

There’s No Ain’t in Paint

Applying new paint is now only slightly more fun than scraping old paint. Painting used to be a blast, back when you had paint fumes for entertainment. But in their old age, paint manufacturers have become sticks-in-the-mud (rumor has it, Sherwin Williams never cracks a smile now, and Benjamin Moore has become a stoic philosopher) and now only sell low-fume paints so you can’t get high off your house siding. Without fumes, painting is officially a joyless activity that takes you to some pretty dark places. Yesterday, sun glaring, I was standing on a ladder painting the gables and started thinking about water, which strangely led me to think about water-boarding. I found myself wondering, Why didn’t the CIA just give enemy combatants old farmhouses to scrape and paint? 

My general philosophy is to let paint flake off the house naturally before repainting, but my wife says that’s unsightly. Built in 1897, our farmhouse has so many layers of lead paint adhered that I’m pretty sure it’s bulletproof. I’ve yet to see a bullet hole in our house, and I’ve inspected every square-inch of it with a paint scraper. Repainting the house is my goal this summer, which is why I’m completely against my wife setting goals. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried diligently to get out of painting, but she just repeats her new slogan whenever I approach and open my mouth. 

“I ain’t feeling too…” I’ll start to say, but before I can finish telling her about my feelings, she just says, “There’s no ain’t in paint.” This is only slightly more empathetic than her previous slogan: “You can’t spell paint without pain.” 

Of course, I’ve already tried the Tom Sawyer bit. But children these days are more streetwise than Mark Twain’s time. You’d think climbing a twenty-foot ladder with a sharp paint scraper would appeal to adventurous kids, but so far none of the neighborhood children have wanted to paint my house. They just stay inside and play video games. It’s sad really, the work ethic of children these days. 

Pretty close to an enhanced interrogation technique if you ask me.

What’s your least favorite farm activity or chore?

How to Communicate with Loggers

Farmers and loggers have long been rivals. As a government soil conservationist, I’ve been trained for effective communication with both groups. With loggers, I communicate in plain speech, with simple questions like, “Hey, buddy, you been sleeping on the job?” Sometimes they don’t understand, just glare and shake their head.

Despite limited comprehension, loggers always strike me as some of the most thoughtful and cerebral storytellers around. There’s often a lot of math in their stories, particularly concerning the angle of a leaning tree, the tree’s rate of descent once severed, and the top speed of a soil conservationist in steel-toe boots. Occasionally, they also get philosophical with quips like, “If a tree falls on a government employee’s truck and no one’s around to hear the horn, does the truck make a sound?”

Loggers love nature and tell lots of stories about snakes, hornets’ nests, and cornered wildcats. One logger told me about the time he put a large and beautiful specimen of copperhead in the county forest ranger’s truck. He never saw the forest ranger in the forest again, but he did run into him once at a bar, where the forest ranger picked up his tab, but hardly said a word otherwise. This shouldn’t reinforce the old stereotype that loggers are heavy drinkers; usually loggers just stumble upon liquor stills in the woods and feel duty-bound to dispose of the liquid contraband.

My grandfather was a logger, and I remember building forts out of logging debris, the smell of pine sap on my hands, and the sound of the skidder rumbling while I played blissfully in the woods nearby. Sadly, when I wax poetic about our common experiences, loggers always hurry back to work sharpening their chainsaws. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a logger to dull a chain on a nail or piece of barb-wire embedded in a tree. Nails show up so commonly on logging sites that on several occasions I’ve left a logging site only to soon thereafter hear a loud clunking noise and to find a nail in a tire’s sidewall. Being a government truck, it takes an act of congress to change the tire, and sometimes I’m forced to walk back to the logging site where the loggers welcome me with open arms, though sometimes the closed-fisted slaps on the back are rather rough for my liking. Still, boys will be boys, and it feels good to be included by loggers; not everyone is as kind to government employees. 

government employee deterrent.

Farmer Personality Types

It’s been raining a lot here, and the primary reason I dislike rain is because it’s wet. I hate being wet. It has something to do with the childhood trauma of my mom insisting I get clean. Getting clean was a huge waste of time because I’d just get dirty again the next day. Sometimes I tricked my mom by letting the shower run; meanwhile, I’d sit beside the shower and read a comic book until the mirror fogged up, which indicated an adequate amount of time had passed. Then I’d sprinkle a few drops of water on my head and presto–all clean!

When tomatoes took over the porch.

Perhaps my favorite reason to farm is the tan. Grease, oil, dirt, manure, and all-around general barn grime have a way of clinging nicely to farmers and giving our skin a natural patina. Back when I used to plant a half-acre of tomatoes each summer, my skin would be tinted green when I came in from picking. My wife would banish me to the shower, and the runoff would actually glow with chlorophyll, which was pretty neat. Seeing how dirty I can get shower runoff is now the only good reason I know of to plant a half-acre of tomatoes to pick myself. 

Truth be told, I hate being wet almost as much as I hate being cold. And if I’m wet and cold, I might as well be hot, which I abhor. You might think that someone who hates rain and temperatures hot and cold would be a pretty bad farmer, and you’d be right. But rest assured I’m a bad farmer not because of atmospheric predilections, but solely because of my personality. 

Recently I took the Myers-Briggs personality test, and the results confirmed my suspicions after ten years of trying to farm. It had a list of careers to avoid for my personality type, and “farmer” was at the top. If only I would have taken the test ten years ago, I would have saved myself a lot of misery (I’m thinking, just off the top of my head–the barbed fencing staple in my foot, an embarrassing wrestling match with a pig, and my personal record of twenty-three bee stings in one day.) 

According to the test, I’m an INFJ, or what’s known on the internet as a Creative Nurturer. According to said internet, INFJ is the rarest personality type (we’re not benefiting from the whole survival of the fittest thing) at a mere 2% of the general population. My research indicates few scientific surveys have been done of personality types at the sale barn, but my own anecdotal observations suggest very few Creative Nurturers leave the sale barn alive. Case in point, once I tripped and nearly fell off the catwalk and plummeted into the bovines below. Furthermore, I only know of one other possible INFJ in agriculture around here, and he works at a beet farm as a cult leader. If he walked into the sale barn, he’d probably be stoned to death.

So to sum up, the point here, of course, is I farm not because I’m genetically predisposed to be good at it, but because I don’t like taking showers. Being dirty makes me content, at least when I’m not hot, cold, or wet. 

What Myers-Briggs personality type are you? Is it a good fit for farming? Do you hate certain atmospheric conditions?

How to Fix Stuff on a Farm

Fixing stuff on the farm

It has come to my attention that one of the main responsibilities of farming is putting things back together, sometimes known colloquially as fixing stuff, which leads to the other main responsibility of farming–finding stuff to fix stuff. 

Finding stuff is a satisfying pastime, best enjoyed in the company of others. There’s no greater pleasure than shouting across a scrapyard, “Hey, I think I found something!” Over the years, my wife’s poppaw Lowry and I have spent many pleasant hours wandering the local scrapyard in search of the perfect piece of scrap. The chance to work in outdoor environs like a well-organized junk heap with birds chirping, heavy machinery roaring, and jagged metal gleaming is what draws many people to farming.

What also draws people to farming is a love of the land, and there’s nothing like landing a quarter-inch wrench from the disaster area that is my tool shed. Sometimes I forget to lock my tool shed, and I’m pretty sure that’s when my wife sneaks in there to play with my wrenches and forgets to put them back in their correct place, which is why she often finds my pocket wrench in the washing machine. 

Once you find the tools and materials needed to put something back in working order, then you just need to remember how you took the thing apart. Truth be told, it’s very simple to fix things, so to give the repair a sporting chance at failure, it’s best to reference only mental notes from taking the thing apart. Writing down the order in which the thing was disassembled is considered cheating–unless, that is, the written notes are promptly lost, in which case they become fair game for the process of fixing stuff by way of finding stuff. 

The final step after reassembly is to apply duct tape, JB Weld, or bailing twine. Then you can either call your neighbor to brag about your ingenuity and successful farm repair or, more likely, ask to borrow his equipment since your thing still isn’t working. 

A Glimpse into a Farmer’s Soul

There is nothing more intimate than climbing in another man’s work truck. It’s a glimpse into his soul. If only George W. Bush, instead of gazing into Putin’s eyes, would have gotten into Vladimir’s work truck, he would have known Putin was a dirty, no-good dictator, who couldn’t be trusted. As it is, we invaded Iraq instead of Russia, and consequently the current leader of the free world thinks injecting bleach is a good idea. Not that I haven’t thought the same once or twice, but that’s when I was really depressed because cattle prices plummeted, which, to be fair, occurred during the Obama administration. 

But enough politics, back to work trucks. I love a king cab, the filthier the better. It’s always revealing to see what’s left of the stimulants another man needed to stay awake and well-nourished on the farm: Mountain Dew bottles, crushed Red Bull cans, orange nab crumbs, honey bun wrappers. My truck is littered with M&M wrappers and Diet Coke bottles. My wife’s poppaw Lowry is eighty-four, and whenever he rides with me, he says I need to stop drinking that “dope.” Dope is what old timers here in the foothills call Coke. Unfortunately, many farmers have graduated to more hardcore substances. Sun Drop is a major problem now. Shelby, NC, is kidney stone capital of the world. 

But last year, I got into a farmer’s work truck and noticed something unusual. Instead of your normal farming essentials, like a tin of Skoal and a dip bottle, this farmer, James DeWalt, had a copy of Plato’s Republic sitting on the dash. I did a double take. “Why do you have Plato?” I asked.  

“To read,” he said, “the new combine has GPS-guided steering. You just gotta do the first round to set up the field boundary, and then the combine takes over and drives itself.”

“So you read Plato while combining?”

“Yeah, I’m trying to catch up on the classics now that I have all this leisure time riding around the field. I read Aristotle during corn harvest. ”

To be honest, I was really impressed. Who woulda thought Jim DeWalt was a man of such refined reading tastes? But that’s what a work truck can reveal. Personally, I always thought technology was making humans dumber. Take me, for example: I only know three phone numbers by heart–one is my own cell phone, one is the number to my childhood house (now inhabited by complete strangers), and one is 911. It’s sad that I don’t even know my wife’s number. She’s just speed dial number one. Thankfully, I don’t text much, so I can still write in complete sentences, but the calculator app has also destroyed  my ability to do longform division. 

working on combine

But if new technology can increase my reading time, I’m all for it because old technology has not. Several years ago, I spent $400 on on an old combine, an Allis Chalmers All Crop Harvester, but it breaks down every fourth round so I have little leisure time to enjoy anything while harvesting grain. But when I realized that for $400,000 I could have bought a combine that drove itself and allowed me to read the masters, I was smitten with envy. At least, I was until I read the following article in our local paper.

Come to find out, Jim fell asleep while reading Plato’s allegory of the cave and auto-steering malfunctioned. But despite making headlines, he had a good attitude about the mishap. He said if John Deere ever creates a combine that does laundry, he’ll be the first to buy.

How to Achieve Pet Status on a Hobby Farm

Raising bottle dairy steers is not for the faint of heart. As purchasable animals, they rival only goldfish in price and ability to keel over. I’ve seen healthy day-old Jersey calves sell for less than five dollars at the sale barn. I’ve never seen a day-old Jersey bring more than fifty dollars, which is top of the market and still a reasonable value, considering some goldfish can sell for hundreds of dollars per piece. I guess koi is good eating, probably best fried with hushpuppies.

three bottle calves in a barn stall.

Dairy breeds, however, produce a bony carcass, so most of the bigtime cattlemen don’t want anything to do with a Holstein steer, and they wouldn’t be caught dead with a puny Jersey steer on their farm. “There is more meat on a big deer,” they might say. These days cattlemen just want big beefy angus cows. This may seem rather discriminatory, but it works out in favor of some dairy steers. Many are destined for hobby farms where they live a life of leisure and get a lot of entertainment out of watching people play veterinarian. I think it’s a well-known fact among dairy steers that the way to achieve pet status on a hobby farm is to get as close to death as possible without dying and then let the farmer nurse them back to health.

We’ve raised a lot of bottle calves over the years. The ones we remember the most are the ones we nearly lost and somehow doctored back to the living. Oftentimes, they’re a little stunted afterwards, which works to their advantage cause they last longer on the farm. My philosophy with raising dairy steers is most of the work is upfront, so even if it takes longer to feed them out, it’s still worth it to recoup the time spent bottle-feeding and doctoring. We grow our own grain and run it through the old hammermill, so we don’t really have a shortage of feed.

Eventually, whenever we take the calves to the sale barn, the handlers always comment on how tame the steers are. “They’re just big pets,” I respond.

Then I walk the catwalk one last time. Though the paycheck is nice, I still hate to see them go.

a group of our steers on moving day.

9 Pointless Pandemic Ponderings

  1. Fewer cars on the road mean less roadkill. Are buzzards going hungry?

  2. How do bank tellers identify bank robbers with everybody wearing masks?

  3. Simple solution to reopen the economy: everybody wears biohazard suits. Not enough biohazard suits? Take beekeeping suits and saran wrap the veil. (okay, not thirty minutes after I published this post, I saw a news story saying Trump economic adviser Stephen Moore recommended everybody wear space suits. That a top Trump economic adviser and I think alike is concerning–for me and this country. In fact, it’s so frightening I might grab a shovel and go bury gold in the backyard.)

  4. With handshakes now obsolete, will Free-Masons develop a secret elbow-bump?

  5. Bats get blamed for a lot of bad stuff, like coronavirus and vampirism. Did vampirism start in a Transylvanian lab? Screenshot 2020-04-23 at 2.11.24 PM

  6. How is the shortage of toilet paper affecting the port-a-potty industry?

  7. Why is the first person with coronavirus called patient zero? Shouldn’t it be patient one?

  8. If viruses just live to multiply and make life miserable, was my third-grade math teacher a virus?

  9. A gallon of milk is now worth more than a barrel of crude oil. Who says farming doesn’t pay?

For more farm thoughts, see On Farm Safety Thoughts.

3 Reasons to Dwell in the Boonies during Covid Times

Please close gate behind you

Reason 1: You can go outside without fear of reprisal by the law. In fact, last week I got a visit from the law, blue lights flashing, actually requesting my presence outdoors, not deterring it–the reason being the cows were in the front yard eating shrubbery. The deputies spotted them and thought they looked out of place. Little did they know, I’ve pretty much got the cows trained to go straight for the shrubbery when I forget to close a gate. But the deputies were very nice, although Officer Beam needs to work on studying the cow wrangling section of the police manual, particularly the part about de-escalating the situation and not running wildly and flapping at bovines.

Reason 2: You can go outside in your underwear. Who needs pants when you’re holding a microwavable tray of scalding-hot bacon grease. One of my Covid-19 quarantine resolutions is to eat more bacon at breakfast. Of course, eating more bacon means I have to clean the bacon tray more often. I’ve found the fastest way to do this is to dump the grease before it cools and congeals and rinse the tray. I used to do this process in the sink before my wife caught on when the sink clogged up. Now, after negotiations with her, I’m contractually obligated to dump the grease outside and rinse the tray with a water hose, but I held my ground on wearing pants before breakfast.

Reason 3: Rural looters aren’t the smartest. I mean, if I was a beginning criminal, I wouldn’t pick an area that has more firepower stocked up than a semi-developed country. A few days ago, a local teenager decided he would spend his extra leisure time in quarantine by practicing thievery. He decided to steal a neighbor’s lawn mower at midnight. His getaway plan was to ride the lawn mower down the road. A rock solid plan, except for the fact that the owner heard him crank up and had plenty of time to handpick a weapon from his arsenal for just such an occasion. He picked such a high-powered piece that the gunshot was heard across the countryside, downed a satellite, and produced the desired effect of scaring the boy senseless and sending him fleeing into the woods. Nobody knows for sure who the boy was, but obviously he wasn’t very bright if he was stealing a run-off-the-mill riding mower instead of a zero-turn.

 Our calves–always the on lookout for escape.

Spring Cleaning in Covid Times

Maybe you’ve heard the theory that opposites attract. Scientists have supposedly proved this theory by magnets, demonstrating that invisible negative and positive ions inside polarized metal bars attract one another, but who really knows? It could be magic causing all this metallic amour, specifically a love potion or Harry Potter spell or something.   

So to provide a more tangible example that opposites attract, I’ll posit the following relationship that certainly can’t be explained by a mere love potion–the relationship between my wife and I. Indeed, nothing but a primordial attraction of opposites could bind together a microcleaner and a macrocleaner for a spring cleaning day during Covid-19 times.  

Natalie, my wife and microcleaner, set her sights on a small space, a three-foot by four-foot nook, known locally as the only original closet in our house. Back in 1887, when our house was built, extra storage space was out of vogue. In fact, extra space in general was frowned upon, which is why my wife’s ancestors, a family of twelve, once lived happily in our three bedroom house (perhaps the liquor still down in the woods contributed somewhat to the happiness, but mostly, I think, it was the cozy space). 

img_0332

By the end of the day, my wife had the closet immaculately organized with shelf spaces labeled for designated things. However, to accomplish the feat of cleaning, she had to disasterize the area outside of the closet. She pulled everything out that I had stuffed in there over the last year, completely negating a year’s worth of my macrocleaning efforts. 

As a lifelong macrocleaner, I’ve perfected the art of stuffing random things into closets, drawers, and under beds to give a room the overall appearance of order. Last week, for instance, I found a lost quarter-inch wrench that I stuffed into my sock drawer many months ago.

Anyway, it was my job to put away all the stuff that my wife had pulled out of the closet– stuff that, in her opinion, didn’t belong there. Thankfully, my wife’s ancestor’s believed in outbuildings, so I divvied up the stuff to appropriate outbuildings and made it disappear. So, after a day of cleaning in Covid times, we had one extremely clean closet and many cluttered outbuildings. 

Cluttered outbuildings

Swarm Catching vs. Coronavirus Catching

Sometimes life, like swarm season, comes at you fast. I caught my first swarm of the year on March 23rd. I got the swarm call right before a department head conference call concerning our county’s response to the coronavirus. As the head of our local Soil and Water Conservation District, a county department of two, I’m required to attend these meetings. To be honest, it’s not my favorite job responsibility, and I feel a little out of place with the county higher-ups who wear neckties and shiny shoes. For instance, once having spent too long providing technical assistance (official government term for chatting) at a dairy farm, I made it to the county department head meeting just in the nick of time, right before the county manager gave some important update, the details of which I currently don’t remember. Mostly, I remember the sight of the Register of Deeds and Library Director sniffing inquisitively, and the smell of cow manure wafting from my boot. But I digress.

On March 23rd, about ten minutes before a county department head teleconference (in lieu of a physical meeting because of coronavirus), Lowry, my wife’s poppaw and my next-door neighbor, called me and said one of my hives had swarmed–“a biggun in the crotch of an apple tree.” Admittedly, my swarm control previsions had been little to none this spring. The bees had been on the back burner, as my wife and I are expecting a baby, our first after nine years of marriage. According to my wife, I now have other priorities than beekeeping, like insulating walls of our old farmhouse to make sure our offspring has comfortable environs outside the womb. At the rate I’m going, I figure our child will be thirty-four by the time I finish this task.

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a never-ending project

Before Lowry’s call, I hadn’t thought much about the possibility of catching a swarm this early. Seemingly, all my brain could focus on was the possibility of catching coronavirus. But after Lowry’s excited dispatch, worries of catching coronavirus suddenly evaporated. The great philosopher Patrick McManus had his own theory for this phenomenon, a theory which he called the “worry-box” and summed up as follows: 

“I have this theory that people possess a certain capacity for worry, no more, no less. It’s as though a person has a little psychic box that he feels compelled to keep filled with worries. When one worry disappears from the box, he immediately replaces it with another worry, so the box is always full. He is never short of worries. If a new crop of worries comes in, the person sorts through the box for lesser worries and kicks them out, until he has enough room for the new worries. The lesser worries just lie around on the floor, until there’s room in the box for them again, and then they’re put back in.” (From The Good Samaritan Strikes Again)

Swarm catching had suddenly returned to prominence as the main worry in my worry box, displacing coronavirus-catching for the time being.

Of course, everybody who keeps bees knows that swarm calls always come at the worst time possible. For instance, there’s an old story that circulates about a beekeeper who got a swarm call an hour before his only daughter’s wedding. After weighing his options, the father made the only rational decision a beekeeper in his situation could. Since he didn’t have time to run home for his beekeeping stuff, he borrowed his daughter’s wedding veil.

Like that father, I solved my swarm dilemma with similar aplomb. I stuck in my earbuds, dialed into the teleconference on my cell phone, and hightailed it home to recapture my AWOL bees. I suppose many of us have recently learned the advantages of teleconferences–you can attend meetings in pajamas (or while swarm catching), plus the smell of manure doesn’t waft through the phone.

In any event, I’m happy to report that I did catch that swarm, a “biggun” as Lowry would say, and that for a while, even though I was dialed into a coronavirus teleconference, my mind was on something completely unrelated to COVID-19.

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My swarm of bees marching into box. I should have got a bigger box

There’s a New Sheriff in Town

Lowry, my wife’s eighty-four-year-old poppaw, likes shooting from the hip. He’s pretty accurate. From ten-paces, he can nail a wasp mid-flight. He prefers dual-wielding two cans of Raid while clearing the riff-raff out of the barn’s nooks and crannies. Normally, he escapes these shootouts unscathed, but last summer, he took a stinger to his forefinger; it swole up like a corn dog. 

Afterwards, Lowry hung up his Raid cans for good. He said he was “gittin too old for this line of work.” He handed over the peace-keeping duties in the barn to me. His granddeddy once did the same with him. In fact, Lowry said, “I can remember granddeddy reaching up and crushing a nest of red wasps with his bare hand. They don’t make men like that anymore.”

“Thank goodness for that,” I thought. 

To be honest, I’m glad we’ve advanced beyond bare hands for wasp removal. We now have such technological advances as Raid. One of these days Raid will come out with an organic option, so we millennial farmers can feel less guilt about massacring insects with synthetic chemicals–“at least we killed them organically,” we’ll be able to tell our grandchildren.   

Until then, I’m going to keep killing rogue wasps and yellow jackets by conventional means of cypermethrin and prallethrin. I don’t take plesure in killing them–well, usually, I don’t. Last year I got jumped by a vicious gang of yellow-jackets living in an old hay bale. I barely made it out alive, which, to be fair, technically wasn’t the yellow jackets’ fault (it’s not the venom that gets you; it’s jumping from the hay loft). But I felt some vindication when I returned in a bee suit with two full cans of Raid Wasp and Hornet Killer. I doubt Lowry would have worn a bee suit; he would have just moseyed in there, hands dangling from his side, and said, “Let’s dance.”

All this is to say, I saw my first red wasp flying this past weekend when it was nearly 80 degrees. I gave him the business and told him to get out of Dodge, to not come back round these parts, that I didn’t want no trouble. But the rascal drew on me, at which point I promptly turned tail and ran. 

Yep, there’s a new Sheriff in town. 

OLD SHERRIFF
NEW SHERRIFF

These are Strange Times

These are strange times. You may have heard that once or twice recently. Wal-Mart closed here, 24/7 Wal-Mart, just to restock. The fact that a Wal-Mart closed, even temporarily, ought to be a warning to most normal people, and yet my wife thought I was overreacting.

“You need to stop worrying so much about the coronavirus,” she said. 

“I’m not worried about coronavirus, just dying.” I said, as I unpacked $300 worth of groceries from a local grocery store that was substantially higher in price than Wal-Mart. My wife, who is usually in charge of buying groceries, seemed perplexed by some of my purchases for outlasting the apocalypse. I had ten bags of potato chips, five cases of Diet Cokes (Ginger Lime), five frozen pizzas, and enough double-bagged bags of Margaret Holmes Tiny Butter Beans and Seasoned Field Peas & Snaps that the tires on the back of the Toyota 4Runner bulged a bit. I basically went on a supermarket sweep for junk and canned food. 

“Do you think we’re going to starve?” she asked. 

“Yes,” I said, “If we have to depend on my farming ability to provide food, we will starve.”

“Why’d you get three different types of Chips-Ahoy?” 

“I just saw them and wanted them,” I said. 

After the physical exertion of unloading groceries, I went to the couch (it took about thirty minutes to unload everything and stack the pantry to my wife’s standards) to rest while binging on coronavirus news. I noticed that apparently people in New York City were going to bars for one last drink before all the bars closed down. In the rural south, home of many Baptists, we don’t really approve of public drinking at bars, which means most people have to drink in the privacy of their own closet, but I did notice a similar “last-call” phenomenon happening at the big-box hardware store. I went to Lowes thinking it would be deserted, and, lo and behold, there was a long line of men trying to checkout at the two registers near the lumber aisles. Best I can figure, all the men had the same idea: We’d better stock up with building materials one last time. For many rural men, there’s nothing more relaxing than swaggering through a hardware store, checking the straightness of boards, and standing proudly behind a full lumber cart. 

Maybe we all figured if we’re going to be sequestered at home soon, we might as well focus on home improvement. I bought enough installation, concrete-board siding, and OSB sheathing to re-side another section or our old farmhouse. That’s a more productive use of time than binging-watching news on the couch or, well, binge-drinking in a closet. 

Never-ending Home Improvement Project

Book Review: Rust: The Longest War.

At the library, I saw this book on an endcap, calling to me like a rusty tractor implement in the weeds. I couldn’t believe it: someone actually wrote a book, a whole full-length book, about rust–and a legit publisher, like Simon and Schuster, actually published it. I’m glad they did because Rust: The Longest War by Jonathan Waldman was an interesting read, though, full disclosure, I’ve invested a lot in rusty farm equipment over the years so I might be a little biased.

Apparently, rust is considered bad by most people who don’t enjoy working on broke-down farm machinery or getting tetanus shots. Also, from reading this book, I learned that most people don’t like rust-flavored drinks, which is why the formulas for aluminum can coatings are guarded like state secrets–that, and most can coatings contain BPA (a factoid that can companies want to keep under wraps). BPA is that pesky chemical that is probably doing bad things to my body right now because I drink entirely too many Diet Cokes straight from the can.

Anyway, this book has lots of rust-related stories. The author actually infiltrated Ball’s Can School (the company that makes Ball canning jars also makes most of the aluminum cans for drink companies, who woulda thunk?) in which drink industry people, most of whom are mustachioed, get together and learn about the complexities of aluminum cans.

The author also tells the story of the eccentric guy who created stainless steel and details a group of brave Department of Defense employees who saved taxpayers a lot of money by promoting rust prevention over rust repair. The author calls this group the “Rusketeers.” Kudos to Jonathan Waldman for thinking of rusketeers and writing a good read on rust.

“On a quiet night, you can hear a Ford rust.”

From Rust: the Longest War

My rusty Ford 4610.

On-Farm Safety Thoughts

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While cladding our old farmhouse in new concrete-board siding, I thought,

“It’d be nice if ladders had heart-rate monitors like treadmills. That way I could simply rest my hands on a rung and know for certain whether I was having a heart attack.”

While driving the tractor down the road, I thought, 

“It’d be swell if old tractors had backup cameras. That way I’d know precisely where to deposit my hay spear in the honking Lexus behind me.”     

While ripping a 2 x 4 down to two 2 x 2s, I realized, 

“It’d be fine and dandy if safety glasses had a defog feature. That way I could better estimate the position of the spinning saw blade to my fingers.” 

While running from yellow jackets, I pondered, 

“Geez, wouldn’t it be grand if steel-toe boots contained a lighter-weight metal alloy. That way at least the geriatric yellow jackets couldn’t catch me.”

While standing in the tractor’s front-in-loader to clean out the barn gutters, I thought, 

“It might be better if I didn’t have life insurance. That way my wife, controlling the loader lever, wouldn’t be so tempted to dump me.

While having an asthma attack from grain dust, I thought,

“I wish breathing wasn’t such an underrated bodily function. That way I’d remember to carry my inhaler, and my wife’s 84-year-old popaw wouldn’t be concocting a way to tube me like a baby calf. 

While watching a coyote swim across a flooded creek, I thought,

“I’m glad I’m not a coyote.”

Window Alert: Fugitive Livestock

The guv’mint agriculture office where I work happens to be a rock’s throw from our local sale barn. This is quite convenient for farmers. After they pick up their check at the sale barn, they can stop by our office to receive treatment for shell shock. Last week, I nearly had to call the paramedics when one dairy farmer about fell-out in the hallway. He realized he actually owed the sale barn money. His little day-old jersey bulls sold for five dollars each, which didn’t cover the minimum sale fee, so he netted a loss for each bull calf sold–talk about giving your calves away. After I helped him compose himself, I gave him some apt advice for his next bull calves: spray-paint them black and pass them off as Angus on Craigslist.

Being so close to the sale barn has perks besides increasing my ability to quickly help dairy farmers in need. During lunch, I like to walk down to the sale barn grill for the purposes of exercise. Dodging trucks with rumbling livestock trailers in tow provides strenuous cardio, and I’m a big proponent of being heart healthy. It’s just happenstance that the destination at the end of my walking route has the best cheeseburger around (insert freshest beef joke here), plus they make a mean batch of onion rings. Also, their fried chicken is quite tasty, especially the skin.  

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Another perk to working so close to the sale barn is I never know what I’m going to see run by my office window. Usually, it’s goats. Apparently, they’re the best escape artists, followed closely in rank by young piglets. Approximately thirty-seven seconds after a fugitive piglet speeds by my window, a posse of sale barn workers will follow in pursuit. If I’m not too bloated from my exertion at lunch, I’ll gladly join in with the posse to help wrangle where needed. Chasing a piglet is even better exercise than dodging livestock trailers.

Usually, I see escaped domesticated livestock out the window, but occasionally I’ll see native wildlife, too. Last week, for instance, I saw the strangest creature. At first glance, I thought it was a skunk and dove under my desk to take cover. I’m a little jumpy when it comes to skunks (read Polecat Prone-Areas). But upon peeking out from under my desk for a second glance, I determined it was no polecat. The creature was too brown and streamline, plus there was no odor involved. And that’s when it hit me–by George, I knew this critter. At church, one frequently stared at me from an old rich lady’s scarf. 

To my knowledge, I had never seen a live mink before in my life–not even in the zoo. But at our yearly conservation field day, our local game warden had a mink pelt and skull he used for show-and-tell with third-graders. Having seen that presentation many times over the years, I felt pretty confident I was observing the rare woodland creature. I even called my coworkers over to the window to observe the mink. It scurried all over the place, giddy with excitement. Then it looked up alertly and made a beeline into the woods. 

“Wow” I thought to myself, “it’s not everyday a person gets to see a mink.”

But no sooner than I thought that, a posse passed by. Apparently, it was no mink at all–just an escaped brown ferret that someone tried offloading at the small animal sale.

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Winter Guests

Decal-Ladybugs

Every winter, all the local ladybugs pack up their belongings and come visit for an extended stay. I’m not sure how they got our address, but word is out, “Ladybugs Welcome.” They act like they own the place. Yesterday, for instance, while I was in the shower, one flew in and slid down the tub wall. It bathed upside down in the bottom of the tub, waving its six little legs like it was having a good ole time trying not to drown. I rescued the hapless bug and gave it a stern lecture on the dangers of tub drains before releasing it back into the wilds of our house. For some reason, we’re okay with ladybugs crawling around. Once, a brave roach filed a discriminatory complaint, but after a ruling from my wife, the complaint was quashed and the complainer, squashed.

If roaches ever evolve into cute little bugs, we’re all in trouble. I mean, when was the last time you squashed a ladybug? Ladybugs are cunning that way. They wear pretty polka dots, eat garden aphids, and bring good luck–all deliberative moves meant to curry favor with humans. They’ve been so successful in their branding campaign that they convinced the Germans to design a car in their image.

Now they’re invading human abodes with no fear of reprisal. Currently, eight ladybugs are doing laps around the frame of our kitchen window. I’d let them out, but they’d just find a way right back in. They’ll leave in the spring without saying goodbye or thank you. In that regard, they’re distinctly unladylike.

Ladybug impression
This is my I-phone’s attempt to take a close up at one of the ladybugs crawling on the counter. Claude Monet would be proud.