Category Archives: farming

The year Merle Haggard died and we had kittens

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On the home front….

My better and more talented half wrote another beautiful book.


The eldest turned 16, In Every Way. The twins turned twelve.  Lila is becoming quite the equestrian, and both boys continue to be obsessive ballers–Daniel’s the star of the rec team I’m coaching, and Theo plays on the Middle School team. I never have to worry about having something to talk about with them. It’s hoops chatter 24-7. (I should mention Theo ran cross-country and made the all-region team!)

Also, the boys have really excelled  at that bottle-flipping thing.

An undetermined critter got at what was left of our chicken brood, on two successive midsummer nights, and the coop, devoid of avian life, has become the home of a huge woodchuck who tore the floor out and burrowed a home beneath.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on


A stray cat wandered up to the house, and withstood the combined efforts of our two dogs and four established felines to run her off. Then she had four kittens.

The cowherd got bigger, again, and the count is up to 46, far too many for the pasture I have. Got a good price on hay in the fall, though. I bought enough to last through winter, and will lighten my load when (I hope) the market firms a bit in spring.

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The bees looked to be going great guns for the first part of the season, which was awfully wet. I got a fair bit of honey from all of my hives in June, but starting in mid-July it stopped raining. I really don’t know what the bees had to forage from August through October, but they were in just OK shape when I left them to ball up and face the winter. There are five hives going right now. I hope there will be that many in April…

For the third year running, 2016 was the hottest on record in, basically, the world. Locally, and more critical to my needs, it was also dry. Ordinary folks thought that made for pleasant weather (it did), but farmers thought it was weird. I had to pump spendy city water for five months. Thanks to winter rains, the spring  in the cave field only just started to flow again.

I got to go to Nashville, again, solo, to hang with my peripatetic scholar friend John, and Atlanta, with the entire family, to see the other John, his wife Nuria, and boy Pau.

All smiles at the Carter center

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

Had visits: from dear sister Caroline and her dog Emma, and the annual return of my old Great Plainsman comrade Charly. The MacNeal clan, now based in Taiwan, honored us with a very fun visit. A pleasant surprise was the arrival of Anna, my old Australian friend, with whom I traveled to a good few countries, including hers (for half a year!), in the mid-eighties.

From what I could gather, Anna had somewhere in the range of six to twelve international trips in the last year alone. Me? Me, I have a passport I renewed in 2003, which has never once been stamped. She brought a big canvas sack of my old letters to her, which I have yet to dig into. I’m a bit afraid they will seem to have written by another person….

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

I had to be reminded of it, but I had not one but two aces in  2016. I accept I may never have another. I’m fine with that.

Neither ace had a witness (so go ahead and append the asterisk). In any case, I was far more impressed with myself when I pured a 7-iron to inside a foot on a back pin on #13. I was playing through a foursome of well-lubricated Louisvillians on the tee, and we all became good friends for a brief moment.

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Friday miscellany: Fecundity, Andre the Giant, and an epic photo

Sunday evening Buster Pike bike ride

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

This is the time of year when I am overwhelmed by the fecundity of the world. Calves dropping, bees swarming, grass growing what seems like inches every day. Nothing to complain about, just that it’s a pretty intense time in the cycle of the farm.

So far it looks like four cows have calved without major complications. Only fifteen (or more) to go.

There is always a dance involving me and the mama cows, who tend to hide their calves in the first week after birth. Our farm is 20-some acres of pasture surrounded by hundred of acres of crops farmed by renters. Right now, the winter wheat is two or three feet high, and offers a tempting place for a calf to crawl off to and sleep away the day. The problem is that the pasture and the crops are separated by a single electric wire. Sometimes the calves scoot under the wire, and the mamas are left on the other side.

Often the cows get agitated by this situation, but just as often they’re cool with it. There has only been one time when a cow has lost her calf, but I am always worrying that will happen. I try to keep track of the calves twice a day, and sometimes have to follow the cows I know have given birth. Sometimes I’ll get lucky when they stare in the direction of where the calf is hidden, but other cows are cool customers. What? A calf? There’s no calf around here! I have known cows that will look in another direction to throw ME off.

I don’t want to call my tracking wasted effort, but sometimes it is. By dusk, cows and calves are usually together, and the babies gambol gaily (never used that phrase before, but it’s apt) and the mamas call for them with their low moo, which quickly becomes a bellow if the calves aren’t paying heed.

***

 

Apparently, Andre the Giant was born 70 years ago yesterday.

Brush with fame anecdote #201542a323:

Of all the famous folks I waited on when I worked at L’Hotel Sofitel in Bloominton, Minnesota–and that includes the Stones, the Eagles, the Cars, Kenny Loggins, and televangelist Rex Humbard (lousy tipper)– Andre was by far the coolest. He sat by himself in the no smoking section, and ordered two main courses (saucisses de Toulouse aux pommes), three orders of Profiteroles, and four triple cognacs…. I still marvel at the size and beauty of his snakeskin cowboy boots …

***

Just need to share this incredible photo, which came up on the often terrific Facebook Old Minneapolis group:

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The subject is Sherwin Linton, who has been performing folk, country, rockabilly cowboy and gospel music in the Upper Midwest (and for some time nationally, touring with Roy Acuff) for sixty years. His own annotation for the photo is priceless:

There is an amazing thing about this photo. t I did this routine frequently in 1958 at The Rail Inn Tavern on Central avenue in Minneapolis.. As you look at the photo the customers at the bar were like “Ho Hum. here he goes again. Some goofy guy with outlandish cowboy boots dancing up and down the bar playing a guitar upside down. He better not spill my pitcher of beer”.

 

Pre-breakfast rodeo

cowz_expressionist.DSC_2754Both of us had forgotten to get milk, so I went into the pantry for a can of the sweetened condensed, something I am secretly glad to be forced to consume with morning coffee. No sooner had I popped the top, I looked to see Heather standing next to the teakettle, having just opened another can of the sweet sticky goo.

It’s unseasonably warm, and Theo and I had a back and forth about turning on the propane. “I’m cold. I want to sit on the heating vent.”

“We don’t need the heater. It’s already 58 degrees.”

…”and why are those dogs barking?!”

Oh. Ohhhh.

Just outside the kitchen window, a trio of bovines munching contentedly. SOMEBODY (uh, me) had forgotten to latch the gate. There’s a grown cow right near the open gate, and I go for her first. She’s easy enough to coax back through the gate into the pasture, but when I turn my attention to the other two, the cow edges back into the yard, resumes grazing.

The Other Two are:

a. the baby bull–oh, hey, he’s getting some good size on him–, and
b. the biggest (and wildest) of the yearling heifers.

I sigh. First, the cow (again). Then the baby bull, who is frisky, snorting a bit, and starting to buck. I see a chance to open yet another gate, and give him a minute to discover the opening. He does, and saunters through with a body language that says, “I’m going through this gate because I want to, not because you made me….’

Feeling good about this. Can already taste the coffee.

Only the crazy heifer, who… Ah, geez, no. She’s ambled past the beehives and started up the driveway, which becomes a narrow lane for a couple hundred yards, and then opens into the road, likely at this hour to have cars and trucks driven by inattentive drivers going sixty on their way to work.

I have to get around her, but  I need my phone. And the keys to the Subaru.

Upon reentering the house, both boys are tickled: “we saw your amazing running, dad….” No one thinks to volunteer to help. Back out I go, start the Subaru, and creep behind the heifer. She slows down at the bend, so I get out of the car, and clamber over the fence into the pasture. The old wire and rotting posts hold, thank god. I walk briskly, parallel to the heifer’s path, hoping to get in front of her. But she’s having none of it, and now decided she wants to see what’s out there, in the wide world beyond the end of the lane.

Back over the fence I go, and run to the car. By which time that damn heifer is ambling up the road, a quarter mile, maybe two thirds of the way to Johnny’s farm. A car is coming from the north but the woman driving (maybe Johnny’s wife?) knows what she is doing. She’s got the heifer turned around, and is following slowly and 40 yards behind.

I’m blocking the driveway now, so I shoot out across the road, pray that the soil beneath Hurley’s winter wheat is firm, and do a quick fishtail, and wait. The heifer hustles past. By now it’s clear, she’s a little freaked and wants back into the comfort of her herd. She turns into the lane again. The lady passes. I wave. The lady smiles, or grimaces, I’m not sure. And I pull into the lane behind the heifer. I get Heather on the phone.  “Come on! get the gate.” She does, but is standing too close. I get on the phone to tell her to step away, but she has already done so. The heifer zips through the gate, back into the pasture.

The phone beside me on the seat, “What? What do you want?”

The kids are already in the minivan. Heather closes the gate and climbs in. They won’t even be late. That coffee is going to taste amazing.

Scenes from country life: Drop dead heifer

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

One of my heifers had been panting and frothing and isolating herself for a couple days. My neighbor Albert and I got her in the pen  and dosed her with Nufluor Tuesday, but Wednesday she looked much worse, so we loaded her on the trailer and ran her to the vet right before closing. The assistant immediately saw she was choking on something, probably a hedge apple stuck in the esophagus. The vet ran the equivalent of a plumber’s snake down her and seemed pretty satisfied that he had pushed the hedge apple through.

“Those hedge apples are a bad deal, especially October and November,” the assistant said.

“Maybe I should pick ’em all up and get them out of my pastures?” I asked.

He and Albert laughed. “Let me know how that goes….”

The vet kept at it with the snake for quite a while, then forced some electrolytes down in another tube. A few doses of antibiotics. She should be fine, as long as there were no perforations in the esophagus. Barring that, or a secondary pneumonia, she should be better by tomorrow. She still looked to be in bad shape, but I was feeling pretty optimistic when we ran her off the trailer.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

At dusk I went to check on her and she was panting more heavily than ever. She staggered unsteadily to the woven wire fence, leaned there for a few seconds, then tumbled over sideways, shuddered, and died on the spot! In my past experience with bovines passing from this world, the process has always been a slow, unbearable (for me) struggle, so this was a surprise. The  heifer laid down and stopped panting, and that was it. I peeled back an eyelid: that massive glassy cow eyeball staring back at nothing.

I texted my other neighbor Dave (“well damn that heifer fell over and died right in front of me”). He was out with his tractor so he volunteered to come and drag the heifer in front of the gate so the dead truck could winch her up and cart her off.

I sat on an old bush hog in the dark waiting for Dave, along with two cats: Marshmallow, an older orange tabby male, and a new kitten (as yet unnamed) who had forced herself into our family a few weeks back, with great persistence and overwhelming cuteness. Marshmallow hates the kitten and hisses at her whenever she approaches, but the kitten, being a kitten. doesn’t take it personally and tries to play with him anyway. Both were purring like cicadas. I made a note to sit outside in the dark with the cats more often.

The heifer was in a sort of awkward spot but we got a chain around her neck and Dave dragged her out backwards. The bright amber lights, the roaring engine, and the backup beeping made his John Deere seem like some cheap sci-fi monster. Dave and I chatted for a bit. He was feeling overwhelmed as usual–“I’m movin’ hay and got those stumps ground and drowned that skunk [wait, what skunk?!], and … I’ve just got too much to do. My nerves can’t take it.” As always, though, he made a point of saying, “I don’t care to help you out when I can.” (In Kentucky this means he doesn’t mind. That one took me a while.)

While we spoke, the kitten was circling and sniffing at the great fallen beast.

***

This is not the first time I’ve written about dying bovines and the dead truck. Here is “Waiting for the Dead Truck” from a few years back.

Crepuscular études

Crepuscular. I love that word and always have to look it up.

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

I posted this on Instagram yesterday, and it led to comments from friends as far afield as Minnesota, Brazil and Australia. Genevieve in St. Paul declared it “word of the day,” and Dan in Sao Paulo informed me that crepuscular is a common Portuguese word, which I didn’t know, but it makes sense. Saudade has no direct English translation either.

Then Ricky chipped in from Corrimal.

Personally, I’m quite fond of dawn and dusk, they have a bit of a mystic feel. The changing of the light is always interesting.

…I love the outline of the cow…. The filigree quality of the trees against the light is beautifully delicate, and the warm glow on the horizon sets the middle ground of the frame, but it’s the presence of of the animal and its lack of complete definition that brings it all back to earth.

I didn’t know I had done all that, but … yeah. I hadn’t wanted to explain the shot too much, Ricky’s interest in it led me to confess to what I was really after.

I was actually photographing that cow more that the entire scene. She just lost her calf yesterday morning. It’s been my experience that cows don’t quite get it when their calves die, especially when they get taken away (and the Dead Truck came around in record time, a mere 15 minutes after I had called). So typically the mama bellows for the calf for a couple of days. She comes up to me accusingly and bellows with special ferocity, as if to say “where’d you put my calf!??!”

Ricky: With my tendency to anthropomorphise, I couldn’t do what you do, Tim.

Me: Well, you harden over time I guess. Yesterday I took the opportunity to ship off two of my favorite old cows as well (they both had udder problems and couldn’t nurse their calves, and one had chronic hoof issues). They got onto the trailer like humans stepping onto a bus, and when we opened the gate, both trotted gamely into the heart of the cacophonous stockyard labyrinth.

I felt a bit of a pang, but turned and let ’em go.

When I told my daughter we had sold the big red cow with the horns, she was very upset with me.

“I had to sell her,” I told her. “You didn’t HAVE to,” she replied. Correctly.

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Winter and bovine burden blues

Was on a streak of virtuous activity there but my blogging ground to a halt when we got whacked by the weather the past couple of weeks. First, a blizzard, then bitter cold, then a slushy “wintry mix” from the nasty weather salad bar. Next, locusts, probably.

We live out in the country, and our driveway is nearly a quarter mile long. Getting in and out to the road is never a given. I have a herd of 35 cattle and I have no way to check on them with snow on the ground (and there is still quite a bit) other than trudging out there. But they seem fine, and I have an indispensable neighbor who has moved in my hay when needed, back scraped the driveway, and pulled my stuck 2-wheel drive station wagon out of snowbanks I’d driven into.

I’m not complaining too much. It COULD have been worse. Touch wood, we have not had any issues with pipes bursting. So there’s that.

During the coldest nights I thought it best to pack the wife and kids off to town, where the kids could hang out with their friends and Heather could get some quiet time. She is much more prone to stir-crazy than I. It was my job to keep firewood stacked and drying inside, and to monitor all the faucet dripping configurations.  I’m well stocked with food, beer and bourbon, and the Internet and satellite TV are operational, so this SHOULD be a good time for someone like me, but for the burden of a two-week old calf I’ve brought into the house.

Cow whispering at the Henson-Ungs.

A video posted by Heather Henson (@hensonbooks) on

The gentle big red cow with the horns–for it is from she this problem calf comes–has become a very troublesome animal. Twice in the past two years we had to trailer her in to the vet to fix (temporarily) her problematic hooves. I would have been happy just to sell her when she got lame the second time, but for the fact that she had a calf in her. My thinking was to let her have the calf, and sell the cow after it’s weaned. Finally, she calved nearly three weeks ago, but couldn’t or wouldn’t feed it.

We had just lost a calf to a similar situation. The mother had mastitis or poorly formed udders, or irritable udders, or something, but we found this calf a bit sooner, so were able to get it to the vet in time to save its life. On day one the vet fed the second calf electrolytes through an esophageal tube, and sent her home and told me to do the same, and to follow up the electrolytes with milk replacer, three times a day.

I had no experience with the tube and was terrified to use it myself. Among the things that can go wrong: 1. sticking the tube into the windpipe and killing the calf immediately and 2. killing it gradually via pneumonia. The first time I fed successfully I was pretty sure I had killed her, but she is still kicking after four days of thrice-daily tubings. On the fifth day, she started to lap up milk replacer from a bowl. She did this messily, something between splashing milk around randomly and actually ingesting it, but it became clear she is getting some down into her, and I could let up with the tube….

The problem is that she is feeding incredibly slowly. The first quart of the morning takes two hours or more for her to consume, and we’re lucky to get her to take another pint after that. She isn’t getting what she should but is strengthening, and becoming willful. Yesterday, I had the dubious notion that she needed exercise and a chance to keep contact with the herd, so I set her outside and she immediately ran to mama.

The calf went straight for the udders, and … mama continued to pull away. She was in other respects quite attentive and motherly to the calf, just failing in the crucial category of KEEPING HER CHILD ALIVE. After half an hour of re-bonding I gathered the calf up and brought her inside again but she was now determined to get back to her mother. I’m pretty sure her sleeping outside in 6-degree weather would kill her, so I’m just putting up with the incessant bawling for mama. Also, putting up with Heather’s slowly building simmer. (I had originally said we’d have the calf inside for a couple of nights. We are now on night 6)….

I don’t know where this ends. It’s by no means clear that this calf will survive. If she does, though, I don’t know when and how it will work. The ideal thing would be for her to join the herd and find a cow that lets her feed along with her own calf. If not, I’ll be having to feed the calf morning and night. Knowing now what kinds of labor saving this calf requires, I wonder if I would do it over again. But having started, it’s impossible to keep from doing everything in my power to keep the little monster alive.

La saison de la boue: Mud and contentment, or something like it

Halfway through a winter where I’ve been woodsman and cowherd, dad, cook, and basketball coach. Nothing remotely lucrative in any of that, and it can’t go on forever. But I’m strangely contented. I think.

I’ve dropped much of the electric fencing and my little herd, 34 head with two calves yet to come, is free to wander off my 20-some acres to graze the much larger expanse my wife’s family leases to corn and bean planters in the warmer months. My truck is in the shop and it’s too muddy to drive anyway, so this week I’ve been locating the herd by driving around the perimeter in my Subaru, and then walking from where I park to where they are. It’s an awful lot of walking.

I’m a little anxious about the big red cow with horns, who has chronic issues with her hooves and has trouble keeping up with the others. I’ve been expecting her to calve any day now for the past month. I should have sold her long ago, but she’s something of a pet to me and I’m (still) not hardheaded enough for this business.

Poor Lil frozen honeybee. Why you didn't go back to the hive baby bee?

A photo posted by Tim Ungs (@timungs) on

There is not much I can do for the cattle besides count them and check for lameness and hope to stumble across a cow when she’s ready to calve. I curse having to trudge over this stubble (some days for miles), especially when it’s bitterly cold, but even then, after 15 minutes of brisk perambulation, my body warms and the mood edges gradually into a sort of low-key euphoria. At first I think the landscape is hideous, corn stalks and ruts and bean hulls, but then again, after a while I recognize the variegation, I become familiar with the genera in the treelines–walnut, cherry, oak, hackberry. I make a note of downed trees to cut up later, as well as any standing and easy to access hedge, or osage orange, trees. Their distinctive yellow wood burns well–hot and sparky–and seasons quickly.

 

Like the desert, I imagine, you just have to stare at this landscape of crop residue a while, and it comes to life. Rabbits dart in front as I walk through the wash areas, where the cows still find plenty of green grass to graze, a complement to their hay and the corn and soybeans they scavenge. The starlings are of course ubiquitous, and this time of year there are flocks of geese flying over and landing near the ponds, and just yesterday I noticed, for the first time this year, a gathering of exotic, weird and beautiful sandhill cranes.

I may be repeating myself with this lament but here goes. I grew up in Minnesota, and we had real winters, son. From November to late March, we had snow and ice and inside our galoshes we wore two pairs of socks with a bread bag between them. There was rarely a thought of staying inside before supper. Fifteen below, we played hockey.

Of course winters up north haven’t been quite the same in recent years, and it’s also possible that my memories are not what they should be. But no matter. I can say without any doubt that in Kentucky, in the 20-teens, we don’t have winter as such. We have mud season. I don’t know if saison de la boue is a thing in French, but it should be. I can’t get my kids to go outside, even when the weather’s fine.

My attention span is not what it might be, and I have read maybe parts of three books this winter. I spend a great deal of time in the evenings with one eye on a college basketball game, and the other on my twitter feed. I want to break myself from my addiction to myriad bits of data and opinions on issues over which I have no control. Some mornings I wake up and have to check my bookmarks to remember what article I was reading from 11 to midnight. How many words have I gobbled up on the Charlie Hebdo killings, and to what end? Women and minorities are underrepresented in the Academy Award nominations. And…? American Sniper is a massively popular movie this year, apparently.

Just reading what I’ve written I can see that what I called contentment is at best an intermittent thing. There are truly idyllic aspects to the way we live, but worries, regrets and concerns storm to the forefront of my consciousness when I think about the world outside of our agrarian idyll. My dreams are about separation and scission (excellent word, also a great book of stories) with the occasional aviation disaster thrown in. Are those the dreams of a contented man?

I might venture that it’s contentment, with an awareness of its unsustainable nature. Waiting for the health problems of middle age to raise their heads. Raising three children with the knowledge that their future prospects range from murky to outright scary. Wondering what our beautiful part of Kentucky, officially the outer Bluegrass region, will look like when and if world temperatures rise another couple of degrees, which is not unlikely.

Let’s just call it a kind of serenity, walking a tightrope on a windy day over an abyss. I’m fine with it.

Belcampo’s bubble: cow whispering and R.O.I. (hold the head cheese)

CAROLYN DRAKE / PANOS

Been slowly digesting Elite Meat (heh), in the New Yorker food issue. I found Dana Goodyear’s  profile of Anya Fernald, CEO of sustainable meat purveyor Belcampo, pretty appealing–most of it, anyway.

“I live in a bubble and I’m trying to create a bubble,” Fernald told me. “I recognize that we’re creating a product that is financially non-viable for a lot of people. But I’m also prepared for when the health impact becomes undeniable and people decide to reprioritize their budgets. I think my bubble’s going to get bigger. Not because I’ll find more rich people—I think more of the rest of America is going to decide this is worth it.”

In most respects, I am all thumbs up about her venture. She seems charismatic, savvy and energetic, and has worked with diverse food economies and systems dating back to the late 90s, when she advised a consortium of Sicilian cheese makers. Belcampo meats are not cheap, and yet her declared (perhaps contradictory) goal is to bring sustainably raised meat to the widest possible public. “I want to be the next Safeway,” she states at one point.

I happen to be a big fan of some of her specific approaches to raising beef:

Unlike some grass-fed purveyors, who make a virtue of leanness, Fernald slaughters her animals later in their lives, when they have put on more weight and show the marbling usually associated with the feedlot.

Me too! I keep a herd of cows, and don’t slaughter till around the two-year mark. I love fat! Also, I religiously rotate pastures (though I lack the resources for the more intensive mobbing practiced at Belcampo. Would like to try someday, though). I have a stack of back issues of Stockman Grass Farmer. Often, I market my steers directly (as Fernald did once, from the back of a van).

So … Fernald and I are in the same line of work. Basically. But for the minor matter of a $50 million investment from Todd Robinson, she could be me, I her.

Parts of this profile read like something you’d see in Vogue:

On the morning of the meeting, I found Fernald, wearing a silk wrap dress and snakeskin heels, at a standing desk in the middle of Belcampo’s office in Oakland, her laptop propped on a pile of cookbooks from the high-integrity British mini-chain Leon.

Elsewhere, Goodyear describes a kids’ lunch as “bias-cut hot dogs, meant for the under-fives” and recounts savoring a “sausage, packed in a pig bung, which had cured for three months in a nineteen-forties root cellar.” Pretty easy to make fun of, I know. In the past I’ve written about how that sort of foodie preciousness has led to attacks on the whole idea of challenging the conventional food model (also, here).  (To be clear, I’m more or less pro-food, anti-foodie.)

Even benign things like humane care of animals can be taken to absurd extremes:

The last sounds a Belcampo animal will likely hear are “Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, sh-h-h,” whispered by a handler it has known since birth. After that, the “knocker,” equipped with a bolt pistol and headphones, renders it unconscious with a pop.

I’m never at ease with the idea of sending off animals I’d raised since birth to the building that turns them into meat. (Worse, of course, is having to dispatch them yourself). I can usually turn my back and walk away when I bring my steers in for processing. Once, though, when dropping off an old cow at the stockyards, I remember watching the hands unload her, and felt a major pang of guilt/sadness/regret as she hurried her gait up the ramp, eager to please, a good cow to the end. Hey, killing intelligent animals you spend a lot of time with is a sad thing. But saying “Sh-h-h, sh-h-h, sh-h-h” to a steer before stunning it? (… “the animal-whispering results in meat that is pure of stress-induced dark streaks.”) Well, if it makes you feel better about what you’re doing, fine. But this is more marketing point than science. A modest amount of stress is not going to ruin your meat. (I’m a big softie with my herd. Maybe this is me being defensive about not whispering to my cows in their final moments….)

And then there’s labor relations. In one anecdote, Fernald pays a visit to the processing facility, “the part of the company with the most failed drug tests and the greatest turnover” and can’t get the damn rustics to partake of the joy that is head cheese. One employee politely declines a sample of the brain delicacy, and returns to his repast of ketchup and spaghetti.

***

My bigger problem with Elite Meat is the quasi-messianic fervor the entrepreneur (and the scribe) have about what is at bottom a business venture.

“Our goals for 2014 and 2015,” Hanna-Korpi, an upbeat woman in her thirties wearing oversized eyeglasses and a short black dress, said. “Achieve eighteen million in revenue in 2015. How do we do it?”

The subhead ponders whether steak can Save the Planet. Where does that even come from?

That’s something for another post, I guess. At bottom, I have to address the fact that I am jealous –yes, I said it–of Fernald’s ambition and scale, and the fact that she can get 10 grand out of a single steer…. or that she has a $50 million stake from a single backer.

I find some aspects of her operation highly questionable, like  spending $1.3 million on a single winter’s hay just so she can raise cattle in California, where there is basically no water. Ah, but $50 million can cover up a lot of strange decisions….

Seriously, as a farmer, I’m watching what Fernald is doing with interest. She’s passionate and connected and I do hope she succeeds in her populist goals–in making sustainable and humanely raised meat into something ordinary families buy for weeknight dinner (just not every night). The food movement needs charismatic salespeople. Me, I can’t convince my neighbors to pay $15 for pasture-raised chickens. If she can change American attitudes towards meat and make her revenue goal of $18 million, more power to her. Also, I bet her parties are a lot of fun.

Recycling: Catching a swarm and twerkin’ honeybees

After a long and vaguely hellish winter, spring is bustin’ out all over the farm. Oddly, my beehives are all thriving and I’ve already had a swarm to capture. That’s kind of early but I’m not complaining.

Below is part of something I wrote two years ago. I’ve trimmed commentary on then-current events, but the key question remains the same: will my kids’ kids even know what a real drone is?

And I can only add my recent blinding insight: honeybees are the original twerkers.

Been a great year for the nectar flow, which started very early and is still going great guns, so much so that I woke with a start last night with the realization that I’ve got three bee hives resting on a single  horizontal plank, with an unprecedented mass of honey above. (File under “Complications Resulting from Unusual Natural Bounties.”)

Another consequence of the nectar  bounty is that hives become so strong that they swarm.  Which is really not a bad thing for the bees. But for a beekeeper, aka honey thief, you like to avoid having swarms take away half your bee population, so if you’re lucky and observant you can catch your own swarms, which I did this weekend, twice.

On Saturday, after a little set-to with my increasingly emotional 11-year-old son (another ominous trend), I stomped out of the house and wandered to the bee yard, where they were swarming for the second day in a row.

If you’ve never stood in the middle of a bee swarm, put it on your bucket list. It feels like the early stages of the apocalypse might feel, and yet it’s really just a beautiful natural thing. Basically, the bee super-organism feels it is robust enough to reproduce, so it swarms. In a first swarm, roughly half the bees (five thousand, ten perhaps) accompany the old queen and look for a new home. Upon leaving the hive they fly in mad-seeming circles, creating a cone of bees about ten yards wide and forty feet high. It is noisy and scary and exhilarating. I half expect the voice of James Earl Jones to begin booming out.

The bees in this state are about as gentle as they can be. They’ve gorged on honey prior to leaving the hive, and are merely seeking an intermediate place to settle while the scouts find a permanent location. Lucky for me, they roost on a fence post right next to the hive, the same place another swarm had chosen just yesterday (and not, say, on a branch sixty feet off the ground).

I set to putting them into a temporary hive, as I had done with Friday’s swarm.

And let me talk about the Nasonov pheremone for a brief moment. Because it means a lot to me.

When I ponder all I’ve gained in moving to the country from a house and respectably well-paid job in New York, and giving up all that goes with same — annual 401k contributions, good health insurance, paid holidays, pay! — I can now add as a compensation an intimate familiarity with the workings of the Nasonov pheremone, which  is what worker bees release to orient returning forager bees back to the colony.

When capturing swarms, beekeepers are looking for the distinctive butt-up, fanning behavior (displaying the Nasonov gland) as an indication that they have succeeded in transporting the queen from the temporary roost to the intended hive destination. To start moving the swarm I  scoop handfuls of bees into the box. One random scoop had what looked like  a virgin queen but I wasn’t entirely sure. When I laid the scoop into the box, bingo! The timbre of the buzzing changed instantly and dozens of bees suddenly stationed  themselves at the edges of the box and began the fanning action. My work was pretty much done at this point. I walked away and returned at dusk, and the hive was full. All I had to do was put the hive cover on.

It’s possible that our generation may lose bees altogether. I won’t lay out the case for bee extinction, but a few minutes of googling around, and you will at least be familiar with it. It occurs to me as I type this that our kids’ kids won’t know what a real drone is, but they will be all too familiar with the mechanized war-fighting snooping machines that are named after the least useful members of the bee family….

But that is some disturbing, dispiriting stuff, and as I have already said, today I’m not letting that sort of thing harsh my buzz.