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

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. 

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.

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.

img_0329
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.

img_0092
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

On-Farm Safety Thoughts

Screenshot 2020-03-05 at 6.39.12 PM

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.  

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 1.38.31 PM

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.

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 2.00.21 PM

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.