Selected Essays 2006-2014

 When the River is No Longer a Fence 

Good fences make good neighbors. Bad fences make bad neighbors. No fences make war. After enduring months of cattle trespassing on our farm, I finally drew a line in the silty loam.IMG_2001

For years the Colorado River has doubled as a water source and natural fence for livestock. Then came the drought and LCRA no longer releasing water for rice farmers downstream. The fence, you could say, floated downstream, along with property values and clarity over who has rights to this diminishing resource.

The cattle started showing up three springs ago, seeking greener pastures on our side of the Colorado. Cattle crossings are so quintessential Old West you can almost hear Bonanza theme music in the background. Reality is less romantic: loud bellowing, angry bulls, bank erosion, and manure everywhere.

I have nothing against cows but they make lots of cow paddies, which is a problem if you’re a certified organic vegetable farmer. Saturday evening, as I was headed out from the barn, I was stepping all over them as I followed a fresh trail into our field of lush cover crop. You don’t get peas from cowpeas, but now I realized why it got its name. Feasting on my nitrogen fixers was a herd of 15 black Angus; they had all of Wilbarger Bend but they chose this four-acre field where I had planned to start our next succession of vegetables.

Standing amid the herd was a prize bull so thick in the neck I suddenly appreciated another cow-inspired word — bulldozer. Head down, horns up, that dozer was suddenly cruising toward us. Our guard dog Bella ran first, right past me; I wasn’t far behind. I slipped through the gate and closed it.

These four-legged interlopers were finally behind bars.

Bastrop livestock officer Melvin Tucker –Junior as they call him — knows just about every cattle owner in the county. His truck and horse trailer have been a regular presence at our farm; more often than not, the wayward cows disappear into the mesquite thicket by the time he unloads his horse and saddles up.

This cat-and-mouse game had gone on for months. We complain. A report is written. The cows retreat across the river at feeding time. As long as all are accounted for, the rancher is happy and has no incentive to end this free lunch program. Now that the freeloaders were in my possession, I finally had bargaining power.

The next morning I got a call from a ranch foreman named Chad. Junior had given him a heads up that his cows were on my land and he was ready to pick them up. Sorry, I said, I want to speak to the owner. And whomever he was, I wanted him to come out to my farm – see the mess he’d caused since his “fence” floated down the river.

“Okay,” he said in low voice. “I’ll tell Verlin.”

There must be several hundred cattle ranchers in the county, but few have as much influence and deep roots here as Verlin Callahan. Verlin’s father was chairman of the county commission. Like his father, he is a director at a local bank. And then there is Callahan’s Feed Store, an Austin institution that supplies our farm.

Before Verlin and Junior showed up in a black and gold King Ranch pickup, I solicited advice from a Bastrop friend. Verlin’s a powerful man, she warned. Push him too far and he’ll squish you like a bug.

“I suggest you take the sympathetic approach,” she added.

For sympathy I needed to find common ground. Animals versus vegetables. Big versus small. Conservative versus liberal. Conventional versus organic. The ground was getting awfully thin. But there was Callahan’s General Store. I’d bought thousands of dollars of feed, seed, and supplies from them over the years, including those delicious cowpeas. Shouldn’t he give me a line of credit to compensate me for three years of having to chase his cows away?

Physically, Verlin is a not a big man, but he has a commanding presence, with steady blue eyes and a Colonel Sanders silver goatee. He explained that he’s leasing the 400 acres across the river and that the owner, a developer, doesn’t want to build a mile of fencing.

“The river’s always been my fence,” he said ruefully.

“Well the fence is gone and it’s not coming back” I countered.

I explained that we were certified organic. That we have rules to follow and one of them regulates raw manure. That all those cow paddies were going to  mess up my field plans.

“I know. We’ve got a few others like you that come to our store.” He paused to wipe his forehead. “I garden, too.”

“This isn’t a garden,” I shot back. “This is my livelihood. And your cows have been devouring it.”

“Well, they’ve given you some good fertilizer,” he said, pointing to the paddies.

I could almost feel the pressure against my chest – that first push. I reminded myself I needed to tread carefully or my nose might soon be rubbing those patties.

“I don’t need fertilizer,” I countered. “Not here. Not now.”

“Well, tell me, what do you want me to do?” he said impatiently.

Now the push was starting to feel like a shove. I hadn’t yet considered the ways Verlin might squish me, so I bought some time.

”I’m too angry to discuss it rationally,” I said. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow.”IMG_2145

In truth, the damages I sought were more psychological than economical. Green Gate Farms is a small odd duck in a big bovine pond. Being the first and only certified organic vegetable farm in the county didn’t impress him. And now my declaration of war had only underscored how outnumbered I was. As if to rub it in some more, Junior reminded me that the law was on Verlin’s side.

“You can’t hold his cattle,” he said, moving toward the gate. “And we need to get these cows out of here now before it gets too hot or they won’t cross the river.”

“And watch them come back tomorrow?” I retorted, refusing to move out of the way. “I don’t think so.”

“Won’t happen,” Verlin interjected. “I’m not renewing my lease. I’m moving my cows out of this bend tomorrow…once we get ‘em across the river.”

So there it was. The end of it. Anything more – compensation for cowpeas and lost time – wasn’t forthcoming. Soon the cattle and the cattlemen were gone and all was settled.

Or so I thought.

That evening, getting ready to leave the farm, I noticed egrets flying up from the river. A few minutes later another herd of Angus was ambling up the lane for a snack. They must have hidden out in the mesquite or Verlin’s men had overlooked them among the scores they had to round up and haul away.

Once again I closed the gate. Once again I called Junior. An hour later, Verlin arrived, alone this time. It’s as if his cows knew we had unfinished business, but I still didn’t have it in me to ask for compensation. Silently, we worked side by side directing his cattle once again down to the river. Somewhere in the next bend I could hear his men in their trucks, calling them with the horn that conditioned them to seek chow – fresh from Callahan’s mill.

“That was a nice write up in the paper,” I said, trying to put my anger aside.

“Thank you…Mike and them at the store say they know your wife. A pretty redhead, right?”

“Yes, thank you. Irish. You don’t want to get her mad.”

“You hear any horns yet?” Verlin asked. “My hearing is half gone.”

Small talk has a way of growing into the meaningful kind that makes you stop walking. Two busy men were now pausing in the woods to connect, as the conversation spanned the county’s history – from Josiah Wilbarger, who settled in this bend after his legendary scalping, to developer Jim Carpenter, who tried to build an airport across from Pope Bend.

Like North and South on a faded compass, Verlin’s references were the large yet aging landowners whose holdings were diminishing or changing hands. We spoke of Virgil Lawless to the South, a retired physician and cattle-breeder whose health had deteriorated since his wife passed away. Of James Barton, our neighbor to the North, who lost his pecan grove in the drought. And finally we spoke of Green Gate and our decision to settle here after wells went dry at our in town farm.

Something was happening between us – the building up of common ground.

Still, I could sense that Verlin was having trouble fitting me squarely into the Bastrop County he knows and loves. I was neither hippie nor homesteader. A non-native transplant, yes, but with only 35 acres, neither invasive nor threatening.

By the time we reached the river all the cattle were on the Callahan side. Except one. His prize bull. It stood mid-stream as if reluctant to leave these greener pastures.

“That’s a good sign,” Verlin said, admiring the black beast while it seemed to be admiring itself in the river’s reflection. “The bull always goes last.”

The hollering and horn-blowing from his men was close now. Verlin stepped forward into the poison ivy, put his hands on his hips, and called out.

“Whoooh!” and again, “Whooh!”

Slowly, the bull made his way home. And soon Verlin did, too.

With their departure an unexpected sadness followed me back to the barn. Yes, I had stood my ground and won this skirmish. Yet I sensed the end of an era, the end of free-ranging cattle and an unfenced river. And the stirrings of the much larger war that was certain to come, of developers and ranchers and farmers fighting over this diminished resource we all took for granted.



Farmer Franklin, His Onions, His Passing

Last week, I brought home 30 bundles of freshly cut onion starts. Like most small organic farmers around here, I’ve been buying them from Franklin Zeischang in Taylor. Farmer Franklin has specialized in growing onions since 1985.

“That first year we had a record freeze and I lost all of them,” he told me last Monday evening as we walked along neat rows of healthy green alliums. “I figured I had experienced the worst and I just kept going.”

I thought about Franklin’s comment while driving home, the smell of his red and yellow granix onions filling my van as I passed row after row of commodity crops. Franklin’s place was an oddity out there – a modest ranch house and two acres of naturally grown vegetables. He lived alone and he specialized in onions and found a niche selling to other farmers.

Starting onions from seeds is a slow business. It requires a certain kind of patience many vegetable farmers don’t have. Growing onions fit well with his methodical, reliable nature and I always looked forward to buying those fat neat bundles tied up in string.

Two days after our visit, Franklin died alone at his home of a heart attack. Another farmer friend stopped by and Franklin’s brother was there to greet him. News of his death was a shock. He was only 59 and seemed fine when I saw him; a little slow coming out of the field but he was eager to show me the new cold frames he had built this summer.

It’s unnerving when you buy a living thing from someone and a few days later the person who grew it is no longer alive. The onions we set out in the rows the next morning took on an added value — a sentiment, if that is possible — and we planted them with something close to reverence. And care.

These onions were not going to die.

I had the same experience three years ago when another friend, Farmer Russell, dropped off two piglets at our farm. Russell raised cattle and hogs, and after he became president of the Austin Farmers Market he got to know a lot of vegetable farmers, too. He said we were a contentious lot – competitive and complaining and the like.

We spent hours talking during the slow markets and Erin and I grew fond of him and his gentle, sharing nature. A few days after he delivered the pigs, he drowned in a stock pond. It was a terrible, mysterious death. From that day on, his pigs of took on a different character, as if imbued with some of Russell’s traits.

In a time and place where farming has become a rare profession and the average age of a farmer is 57, there is a greater sense of loss when a farmer dies.  Farmer Franklin and Farmer Russell had two generations’ worth of farm knowledge and experience that got buried with them.

It isn’t easy farming in Central Texas; we need all the wisdom and experience we can find.

The onions that are now setting down roots in our fields can’t speak for Farmer Franklin but I have no doubt they will taste a little sweeter this Spring.


Farmer Contemplates Slitting Wrist With Dull Hoe

If you are an organic farmer, getting up this morning was harder than usual. You’re tired and sore from fighting weeds and bugs the natural way – in 100 degree temperatures no less — and now researchers have concluded that your noble efforts have no more benefit than conventional methods.Image 1

“Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce,” read the New York Times headline. No benefit in nutrition from improved soil. No benefit in health protection from lack of poisonous chemicals. No benefit from the increased compounds like phosphorous and phenols found in organic produce.

Makes a poor organic farmer want to slit his wrists with a dull hoe.

Depressing news like this is not new. What makes this report carry more weight than others is the fact that it was a meta-analysis – a study of studies looking at all the published research on the subject. What’s more, it came from a pre-eminent institution ostensibly free from financial influence.

After looking at 237 studies conducted over four decades, the researchers determined that organic vegetable and fruits were no more nutritious and had no less prevalence of e. coli contamination than conventional produce. Moreover, the analysis found that pesticide levels were higher in conventional food but the levels were almost always lower than the safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As I drove my kids to school this morning, I listened to NPR interviewing food experts about the study’s implications. Parents – mothers of young children especially – have been the driving force behind the phenomenal growth of the organic industry. I wondered how many of them were feeling duped, that organic practices were just another marketing scheme no different than Dean Foods labeling sugared cereals as good for your health.

All that extra money spent at Whole Foods – for naught. All that backbreaking labor in the fields – for naught.

Back at the farm, I parked my van and looked out over rows of vegetables choked with amaranth and Bermuda grass. A closer look would reveal dozens of eggplants whose leaves look sooty and wilted – a tell-tale sign of aphid infestation. In a few minutes our workers will arrive and we’ll grab gloves and hoes and go to work on the weeds. One of us will strap on a backpack sprayer and apply neem or spinosid (organic approved solutions that rarely work for more than a day or two).

We’ll do this work, day after day. Not for the exercise. Not for the holier-than-thou feeling. And certainly not for the money. We’ll do it because we believe on a deep, almost soulful, level that spraying food with chemicals is at best a risky business – for consumers who eat it, for farmers who apply it, and for the earth that drinks it up.

I can live without proof that organic food is more nutritious than conventional food. I can even live with the popular argument that organic methods cannot feed the world. But the chemicals — that is the big dividing line. Chemical-free. That is our politics and our religion.

So much of the rigorousness and art of organic farming is based on its determination to keep clean. Chemical farms are like athletes on steroids – the yields from their fields look unnaturally big, their fruits and vegetables implausably perfect. Give me an ounce of Roundup and my fields would look perfect, too — free from the bull nettle that stings and the nut sedge that clings.

The Stanford researchers did not address the ongoing debate over whether the safety levels for chemicals are set too high. The fact is, few researchers ever will. Human studies of pesticides are expensive to conduct, ethically difficult,  take years to perform, and are fraught with so many variables that results are easily disputed. Until those studies are done, common sense is our best guide. Like steroids, the chemicals we use to grow our food have produced amazing results, yet few of us would eat steroids for breakfast to improve our productivity at work.

The organic farmer is like the turtle racing the hare. He doesn’t cover much ground in a single day, but the ground he does cover he knows well. Because he knows it well, he understands how important it is to take care of.

And he doesn’t need science to prove it.



Omega’s Gift

In the rigid, unforgiving field of pig breeding, Omega was our Wilbur. Crushed at birth, this rare breed Guinea Hog was less than a runt – she was a cripple who never should have lived past day one.

Amazingly, she lived 18 very full

“Life would have been a lot simpler if I hadn’t saved her,” Erin lamented as this miracle pig grew weaker and weaker from extended labor. Simpler, yes, but not as meaningful.

Like E.B. White’s willful lead character, Erin saw in this tiny black piglet something worth saving. Others did, too. Unlike Alpha, her perfect sister, Omega drew attention and concern from everyone who visited the farm, including students from the Texas School of the Deaf and Blind. Volunteers of all ages gave her therapeutic hip massages; she even appeared on local television. You might say she was the farm’s cause célèbre, a living statement against the unnatural standards we place on the factory-raised animals we consume.

Indeed, Omega’s very breed grew nearly extinct because it no longer fit our skewed image of animal as a business machine – no room here, thanks, for foraging, slow-growing, outdoor animals.

Or fat. Once prized for their lard, Guinea Hogs fell out of favor in the age of margarine and Crisco. That, plus the fact they didn’t have high enough output – litters averaging only six instead of the standard 10.

Omega’s litter numbered eight. Perhaps it was inevitable that they would all be stillborn. Her crushed pelvis must have been too narrow for safe passage. Of course, this pig was never supposed to get pregnant in the first place. Just getting to the trough was an accomplishment, much less “standing” for a boar.

But Omega was not your average pig. As our herd grew larger, she faced brutal competition for food, shade and water as this summer’s heat beat down on the baked pasture. Mornings and evenings Omega was literally left in the dust as the hungry herd emerged from its wallow. Slowly but surely, Omega arrived, too, dragging her backside and fighting for her place at the trough. We vowed to keep her alive as long as her quality of life seemed good. No shrinking violet, Omega barked loudest and got her needs met.

As the drought progressed, our pigs ate less grass and more grain. They grew fatter than normal. Omega, too. Last month we noticed she had trouble getting out of the wallow. “Doesn’t it figure that Omega, not Alpha would get pregnant first,” said Erin.

We built her a separate pen to make life more bearable and on Monday morning, I found her in labor, with a pair of legs dangling out of her backside. With the help of small hands reaching inside (Avery’s and Ethan’s, as well as Farmer Mary), we delivered all but two of her stillborn babes. Our midwife friend Jamie, who helped with past deliveries, confirmed that Omega’s labor had stopped. Infection would set in and we would likely lose the mother, too.

Hard to imagine but here we were, almost two years later, having to decide this pig’s fate once more. That little piglet trapped beneath her 200-pound mother so many months ago was now a mother herself, trapped in a body that was delivering death rather than life. Erin couldn’t help second-guessing.  Had she not given in to sentimentality, we wouldn’t be sitting here now.

Yes, not saving Omega would have saved us from so many things: time and money, extra work, grief and regret. But this, too: all those friends of the farm who found a role here caring for our special needs pig. They also saw something of themselves in this survivor. After all, don’t all of us share at times a sense of being crushed by someone or something? Of having to drag ourselves through the dirt? Of being left in the dust?

Harvesting Omega was as hard as it comes. Even in this final act she brought friends to the farm, this time to experience their first pig processing. And she has finally made it to the head of the line; she will be our first taste of this rare-breed that we hope to expand and sell for meat and lard.

Our real-life version of Charlotte’s Web may lack magic and a happy ending, yet Omega’s gift is a lasting one: against all odds she not only survived, but thrived. She inspired us to do the same.

Maybe it was all that love and therapy. And the chance to live.

Surely, this was some pig.


 Tree Talks

Back in early June, when 100-plus highs were already passé, two farmers were talking about trees.

“This could be one of the worst die-offs in Texas history,” said one of them as he surveyed the thinning tops of an old stand of hackberries.

“Worse then the 50s?” challenged the other.tree

“Well, I wasn’t around then, but some of these trees were,” he answered.

One of those trees offers shade to Bobby Barton’s old general store in Utley. The 200-year-old post oak is so stressed its more gray than green. A big cedar had fallen over in his front yard. The dying hackberries were too numerous to count.

Barton, whose family has farmed for five generation here, recalled many a horse and wagon backing into the tree during the years his parents ran the general store and post office until 1967. That was the year his mother retired and his father locked the door for good, leaving everything inside frozen in time.

Trees are kind of like that store. Their history is stored inside their trunks. Droughts, fires, floods, good years and bad – all are preserved in their tell-tale growth rings. And if they grow very big or very old, they become monuments to human history, too. Some of the photos of ancient Texas trees currently on display at the Texas Capital Visitors Center’s “Living Witness” exhibit were the site of Indian treaties, famous speeches, marriages, and historic meetings.

One can only wonder if they will survive this historic drought.

Each morning as the farmer drives out to his farm in Bastrop, he notices more patches of brown and gray across the landscape. In fields that are overgrazed, he notices greater die-off, as if the bare brittle ground has created its own heat-island effect. Whole ridge tops have lost their green canopy, a scale of decimation he has not witnessed since the great gypsy moth invasion of the Eastern forests in the 1970s.

After months of struggling to keep his vegetables alive, the farmer has cut the season short and plowed in most of his crops. The season has been as bad as 2009, maybe worse because he still hasn’t recovered from that ordeal and now he’s saddled with a nagging fear, resignation even – this may be only the beginning of something long and infernal, like the notorious 50s.

Or worse. Climatologists call it aridification: the slow yet steady creep of desert-like conditions. Long-term projections predict that Central Texas is headed in that direction. Flying to Dallas recently, the farmer pressed his face to the window and stared down at vast stretches of parched land. He felt slightly horrified. The land looked dead from up there, not just brown but huge swaths that were gray, the color of decay. Was aridification already here to stay?

Each week as customers come to the farm to pick up their vegetables, they share his concerns. How are you growing anything? Did you get that shower the other day? Isn’t this a little scary?

The farmer nods and says he’s thankful to have fulfilled the expectations of his customers. The end of each vegetable season promises a new beginning, a clean slate and a revived hope that the weather will change come fall.

For the dying trees, a new beginning is harder to envision. Surely, the dead make room for the living; young saplings are greeted with sunlight where once there was only shade. But for now and the near future, the farmer will be surrounded by ghostly trunks and fallen limbs.

Many of these big trees have become like friends and he’s not ready to say goodbye. So he does what any farmer is inclined to – turn on his pump and send water their way. His contribution amounts to a trickle compared to what used to come from above, but he feels a little better for having tried.

Farming’s Diametric Twins

Life and death on the farm are always competing for our attention. Sometimes they call in unison.

I was feeding our sheep and goats in the pouring rain when two distinct sounds spilled down from the wooded hillside of our Bastrop farm. One was high and piercing. The other was low and faint. Both were pleading for help.

Following the first sound led me to two Saanen kids shivering at the base of a cedar elm. They had been born the pervious night, exposed to high winds and dropping temperatures. They wouldn’t survive another night of driving rain.IMG_0519 IMG_0516

The second sound came from further up the hill. It was Jolly, the father of these two kids, a 150-pound billy who ruled the herd. Two days earlier I had noticed he didn’t come down to eat and seemed lethargic. Now he was moaning in pain, kneeling on all fours and unable to lift his grossly swollen head.

Had he been bitten by a snake? Was he dying of pneumonia? His bleating was so diminished it sounded like a tiny kazoo muffled under a pillow. This was the same goat who just a week ago had jumped over our five foot fence and protected the herd from a wild dog that had killed two baby sheep.

Farmers sometimes make judgment calls based more on instinct than knowledge. Instinct told me he was a goner but after talking to Erin on the phone I second-guessed myself. I was wet and tired and wasn’t looking forward to the long walk to the barn to get the rifle.

Erin called our vet in Bastrop. A second opinion would cost us $40, she said, but there was a chance he might be saved. And he was worth it – a stunning, charming “Snuubian” (a cross between his Nubian dad and pure bred Saanen mom) whom we had planned to sell as a stud.

I grabbed the two babies and placed them in the empty vegetable crate in the front seat of the van. Then I loaded Jolly and the mother in the rear. For 10 miles I listened to those two opposite and competing calls – new life asserting itself up front, death approaching from the rear.

It’s strange what you focus on when your day has been altered by animals: you focus on other animals. An 18-wheeler in front of me was hauling frozen chickens from Sanderson Farm. A huge cartoon of Miss Goldy stared down at me, this happiest of chicks dressed out in bonnet, parasol, and purse. Across the length of the trailer was printed “100% Natural.” What was this “natural” it referred to, I wondered? Was it what they ate? Where they lived? How they died? It all seemed so far removed, so unnatural, from my experience with these goats; and yet here I was, pulling into a veterinary hospital, with its sign out front advertising “20% off on dentals and floats.”

“I’m here to pick up Miss Prissy,” said the woman at desk ahead of me.

Dripping wet, mud caked to my boots, I waited patiently as I learned that Miss Prissy’s electrolytes were fine but her visit would cost her owner $72. To my right, a man was playing with his puppy while waiting for its shots. To my left, a woman emerged from the exam room clutching a collar and wiping tears from her eyes. Life and death, side by side, same as in my van.

Our vet had me back up the van to the equine barn to get out of the rain. I opened the back door and she checked Jolly’s vitals. She confirmed that he was in the late stages of pneumonia, but couldn’t say why. “You never know with goats. One minute they are fine, the next.” She paused and said, “I would put him down, if were you.”

I nodded.

“I’ll get someone to help you unload him.”

She saw the puzzled look on my face. “I didn’t mean you, personally. We can put him down here.”

“No,” I said. “I’ve done it many times.”

“Yes, of course,” she said, slighty embarrassed. “That will save you money.”

It was a long ride in the van in the rain. Having two farms is not easy but that was no excuse not to have attended to Jolly earlier. My only consolation was that I’d probably saved two little lives by coming out to our Bastrop farm on such a foul day.

As I pulled into our Austin farm, Erin was walking toward the barn. Trotting at her side was another saved life I’d almost forgotten about. Annabelle is the lucky Barbadoe lamb that survived a dog attack. I had found her half dead in that same woods, her neck and hindquarters ripped by teeth. Farmer Jamie and others nursed her back to life so well one would never know how lucky she was except for the way her neck healed in the shape of an S. Intern Farmer Mike suggested we say Annabelle, our crookneck lamb, is a breed we created to eat around corners.

Making light of such things goes a long way on days like these.



A Tale of Two Barns

Adapt or die is nature’s first and final law. Defy it all we want, nature demands change and even the greatest fortunes cannot maintain the status quo.

This past week I saw that sobering truth up close at Shelburne Farms. Hugging the Vermont shore of Lake Champlain, Shelburne is, you might say,  the Downton Abbey of Sustainable Ag. Here in the land of plentiful barns, the Vanderbilts built one for the record books – a horse breeding barn that was the largest free-standing structure in the country in the early 1900s. Today it stands empty, awaiting the same rebirth that transformed two other magnificent horse barns tucked away here on 3,800 acres of rolling hillsides above Lake Champlain.IMG_0321

This grand vision for agriculture, matched only by the grand fortune of the Vanderbilt empire, never reached its lofty goals. By 1910, with the advent of the car, farm’s horse enterprise began to shrink. Yet like the thousands of samplings planted by Vanderbilt’s army of gardeners, a new vision grew up out the land and now stands out as the nation’s model for farm-based education and conservation.

How gratified I felt as I toured the most elegant of the three barns. Summer camp was in full swing and children outnumbered livestock as they wandered through the bakery and cheese factory and petting pens where young educators reconnected them to the bottom of the food chain. A thousand miles away, in a barn that also found a second life, Green Gate Farms camp season was hitting its stride as campers prepared for its newest feature – a 4th of July parade through our neighboring RV park.

The tale of these two barns begins at the turn of the 20th century. Horses were still kings and queens of road and field. The Bergstrom boys, Swedish immigrants who built our mule barn, were a world apart from the Yankee Captains of Industry who transformed agriculture in ways even they could not anticipate. Seward Webb, husband of William Vanderbilt’s daughter, Lila, plowed their fortune into this horse breeding empire just as the model Ts were rolling off the assembly lines. Our modest old barn could fit inside one of Shelburne’s cottages. Yet 30 years ago, Vanderbilt’s magnificent structures, with their copper roofs and granite walls, were falling apart and developers were storming at the gates.

Fortunately, the heirs to this gilded heritage envisioned a new kind of agriculture, not momentous and exclusive but down-to-earth and inviting. Lacking the fortune of the their grandparents, a new generation created a non-profit that has transformed ruined aristocracy into thriving democracy. Today, thousands of visitors see and taste the substance behind its mission of “cultivating a conservation ethic for a sustainable future.”

After three days of touring, resting, and idea-sharing with the Shelburne staff, I returned to Green Gate Farms with a greater appreciation for what Erin created. What began as a response to a CSA member’s innocent request to have her boys “learn how to catch and cook a chicken,” has become so much more. As an active member of Shelburne’s Farm-based Education Network’s alliance, Erin relishes her time in Vermont because it inspires the work we do on our farm.

Shelburne’s network of farmers and educators share a deep understanding that we must meet in the middle if we want to overcome the challenges in this age of extreme. In the previous age of extreme, the downstairs staff of Downton Abbeys came upstairs only to serve. Shelburne turned that Old World on its head. Here everyone eats the same food served at the that same table. That’s how I came to meet Alex Webb, the Vanderbilt descendant who has spearheaded this transformation – waiting in line at the farm’s food truck.

We hadn’t even made introductions before we were sharing our challenges to make farm-based education more mainstream. It’s no small task to wed city and country, to break the industrial food chain and forge higher expectations link by link. Yet this is how the straight line of mass consumption becomes a balanced circle of need, just as nature demands. Planting and harvesting, producing and consuming, life and death – they are inseparable on the farm and it is these other immutable laws of nature that today’s youth hunger to experience.

Whether nourished on the grand landscape of Shelburne or the much-diminished fields of this old Bergstrom farmsteads now known as Green Gate Farms, an idea that is worthy of the times will flourish and multiply. As we celebrate our tenth year here, it’s good to reflect on our agricultural roots. Better yet, to reconnected with these old farms as new farms evolve.

A truly sustainable future, true-to-nature, depends on preserving the one while nourishing the other.


Foreign and Domestic: Pigs with Class — and Not

Halfway into the fourth season of Downton Abbey, Erin and I finally have found something in common with those ruined aristocrats: Pigs. Heritage pigs, to be exact.

This week’s episode not only has Jazz infiltrating the Manor but the improbable “pig” word rolling off Countess Grantham’s ultra-refined lips. Yup, our royal farmers are in the hog-raising business.

If Grantham has his hand in it, you can guess this foray will prove imporkcunious. And wasn’t it surprising that the Granthams would choose the Tamworth breed (the world’s oldest) over the more famous pug-nosed Yorkshire? The Tam, afterall, is the result of a cross with an Irish pig, while the eponymous Yorksire was started in their backyard.

The history of domestic pigs is as fascinating as the animals themselves. Even more interesting is how their wild forebear, the Eurasian Boar, has played a central role in European culture, food, and mythology. This Christmas, Erin gave me “The Golden-Bristled Boar”, a book chronicling its history. (Coincidently, the Paris-based author, Jeffrey Greene, also wrote a book on Bamberger ranch, which explains his frequent references to our Texas-sized wild hog problem.

Just hours before watching the Downton Abbey pig scene, Erin and I had released our latest litter of heritage hogs onto fresh pasture at the river farm. It was, in many ways, a new and long-awaited chapter in our 8-year pig enterprise.

First and foremost, these pigs are a unique hybrid, a genetic mix-up of wild and domestic — the farming equivalent of an inter-racial marriage that was completely unexpected. On Xmas morning 2012, we were greeted with an anonymous gift– a baby wild boar that had found its way across busy Decker Lane and into our pig pens. A victim of suburban sprawl, his turf had been reduced to the scrubby floodplain of Elm Creek. Green Gate offered not only reliable food but the protective services of Spot, our 1000-pound Duroc, who adopted him at first sight.

Our guest soon had a name as well. Erin called him Ugly because, well, he was at first. The name stuck. With good food and fine company, however, Ugly grew into quite a stud. Standoffish, hypervigilant, and slightly menacing, he had but one purpose – to expand his gene pool – and he began practicing almost from day one on sows five times his size.

Fast forward three months and we had on hand a lean, mean breeding machine surrounded by a dozen bored sows and their lazy, overweight male partners. Ugly literally ran circles around them — a blitzkreig mounting campaign so swift and incessant it can only be described as acrobatic.

If you’ve never seen the newborns of wild boars, you might think their forebears were chipmunks. They possess identical brown horizontal strips that slowly fade beneath a coarse coat more gray than “gold.” By the time Ugly attacked Erin and sealed his fate, he was the father of nearly 30 offspring.

In less than six months, our uninvited guest had nearly doubled the size of our herd and single-handedly created a hybrid line with increased vigor and, we hope, a uniquely Green Gate taste. Which made it that much harder to send him to the butcher this winter. Ugly was an orphan whose uptown ambitions brought him in from the wild. Seeing that wildness up close gave us a rare chance to better appreciate the “last ferocious beast in the forest.”

This spring we will be offering the first shares of this new line. In addition to spent grain from Hops and Grain brewery, we are finishing them off on a certified organic cover crop of rye grass, Essex rape, daikon radish and purple top turnips. In pig world, that’s about as upper-class a diet as you can find around here.

Lord Grantham would be envious.



From TreeHouse to HoopHouse in 24 Hours

Urban farmers are, by nature and by design, dual citizens. They reside on the edge of city and country, an edge that seems to get thinner each year. Thanks to technology, urban sprawl, nature deficit and a growing awareness of our ecological footprint, urban dwellers and treehuggers have grown closer together, which helps explain why the hottest show on Animal Planet is Treehouse Masters. Now in it’s second season, the reality TV show has, like urban farming, tapped into our growing appetite for immersing ourselves in nature – without skimping on creature comforts.

A remnant of my pre-farming life is media training for Animal Planet. Several times a year I get called to train the talent on a new show. Animal Planet is one of the few networks I can relate to; and the outside income helps us breathe a little easier in the off season. So there I was this week, literally out on a limb at “The Nest” on Treehouse Point – the 10-acre headquarters for Treehouse Master Pete Nelson and six of his craftsman tree houses nestled in the foothills of the Cascades.

Between one of our mock interviews, Pete mentioned a treehouse he had built for the show’s first season — a spa in Bastrop of all places. I, too, had built a treehouse at our Bastrop farm, a gift for Erin’s 50th birthday. Mind you, there are tree houses and there are houses in trees. If you’ve seen Treehouse Masters, you understand why I was hesitant to share my arboreal feat with the world’s greatest treehouse builder. His are not your father’s treehouses. The Texas-sized build in Waco was nearly as big as our farmhouse.

When I was growing up, most kids dreamed of building a treehouse. Today, they can build whole cities on Sims or Minecraft. Yet the dream lives on in the two million grownups who follow Pete and his crew each week as they build these elaborate human nests in the branches. Just as gardening is an escape from the cube, treehouses appeal to the illusion of defying not just gravity but Big Brother, too. Climb up, raise the ladder, and escape the wired and nerve-wracking world. Or, as the Zen-escent title of his new book puts it: “Be in a Tree.”

The next morning I descended from my lofty lodge  and returned to the farm. Green Gate’s crew was finishing up its own build – an 18-foot-tall hoophouse. The last task was putting on its skin — the clear plastic that will heat up the soil, keep out the bugs, and extend our season at both end. The morning’s calm breeze suddenly picked as we pulled 4,000 square feet of poly over 20 gothic arches gleaming in the sun. Only the extra hands of our volunteers saved us the embarrassment of turning our hoophouse into a giant kite.

Building one’s first hoophouse, like one’s first treehouse, stirs that childlike thrill of green, creative spaces in unusual places. I wouldn’t want to make a living at either. The masters make it look easy, but the real joy is reserved for first-timers.

Saying Goodbye to the California Dream

We’ve been back in Texas for two weeks now but part of me – the dreamer – is still in California. I’m still dreaming of green fields: straight, weedless, bug-free rows of every fruit and vegetable imaginable. I’m dreaming of a thousand acres of strawberries and the machine-like crews of workers harvesting them by the truckload. I’m dreaming of summer highs that rarely break 80 degrees and bountiful farmers markets selling perfect organic produce at half the price we sell in Austin.

California dreaming comes easy when you’re faced with another month of 100-degree temperatures, weeds as tall as small trees and grasshoppers as big as hummingbirds. Today I shook hands with my pal, Bull Nettle, and knew I was back on the farm. If there’s bull nettle in California, I’m sure it has no sting and is sold as an herbal tea remedy – for Texasitis.

Our first glimpse of the unnatural growing machine known as California’s Central Valley came to us after three days exploring Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Kings Canyon is home to Giant Sequoias. The great Central Valley below is home to Giant Agriculture. When it comes to trees and vegetables, Texas Big can’t compete with the Golden State.

For vegetable growers anywhere, the Central Valley is Mecca – the phenomenal epicenter of both conventional and organic production, and all the issues that arise when unbounded capitalism is married to seemingly boundless resources. It happened with the sequoias in the Sierras. It happened with sardines and mackerel in Monterey Bay. Now it’s happening with water in the Central Valley

Like Texas, California is gripped in a devastating drought. The day we descended into the valley, the massive Rim Fire started 75 miles to the north. Two weeks later it was still threatening Yosemite Park and San Francisco’s drinking water. With this year’s snowmelt at historic lows, we saw reservoirs at half capacity – from deep-walled Lake Meade in Nevada to the wide open San Luis containment near Fresno. Rivers were running nearly dry by the time they reached the valley.

For five carefree days we stayed at Deep Roots Farm in Watsonville, courtesy of our Austin friends Peter and Sally Struble . The owners, Jeanne and Bob, run a grass-fed sheep and cow operation on 56 acres. They had not seen rain in six months and now, the dry season upon them, their pastures looked frightfully brown, even more so because they are surrounded on all sides by the great green miracle of modern farming.

Talk about intensive farming ;  the valley makes up only 1% of the nation’s farmland yet produces 8% of its agricultural output. The right mix of soil, sun and seasonable temperatures makes it all possible, along with growing practices that rely on an arsenal of chemicals, petro-based fertilizer, plastic mulch, and a massive migrant labor force.

Don’t get me wrong. California farming is a marvel to behold. It feeds much of the nation and makes a small organic farmer like me seem as insignificant as a drop in the bucket. But here’s the thing. The bucket has a pretty big leak and you have to wonder if science and technology and human ingenuity can patch up it fast enough.

Deep Roots Farm is a rare throwback to earlier farming here – it actually has a barn and a diversity of animals and trees. Its symphony of natural sounds — sheep, cows, chickens, geese, and guinea hens –offset the spit-spit-spit of irrigation guns and row after row of hoop houses with loose plastic flapping in the breeze.

Odd as it seems, there is little role for small farms here. They are like a thorn in Big Ag’s side. And they are threatened from above and below as well – changing weather patterns, polluted aquifers, increased regulations and an invasion of ground squirrels. One day Bob, while fixing a water pipe, Bob pointed up to a bare ledge in the distant hills – the San Andreas Fault; quite literally, their farm is losing ground, the property line having shifted a foot south over the past 10 years.

In nearby Watsonville we stopped at ALBA, the oldest organic incubator farm in the country. Tony, its distribution manager, told us it takes seven years to restore conventional farmland back to natural productivity. The worst enemy of organics is the big spray rigs that still fumigate the soil with methyl bromide, which was supposed to be phased out eight years ago but scientists have yet to find an effective alternative. Rotating conventional fields with cover crops is too expensive and so fields have simply become sterile growing medium for a synthetic life-support system. No wonder the workers in the fields cover every inch of their bodies.

We left Deep Roots early in the morning and already the workers were in the field picking strawberries – a grueling, monotonous routine from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. six days a week. Our last image of the Central Valley was the truck ahead of us overloaded with plastic mulch torn out of the fields and headed to the landfill.

Yes, we came home to the Texas summertime blues but Green Gate Farms never felt so welcoming and right. The deep roots we’ve put down here may be small but they are natural and long-lasting. And that’s no dream.


A Wood Dies. A Pasture Is Born

Rarely, perhaps only once in a lifetime, does a farmer get to witness the natural evolution of a pasture turning to woods or its opposite in this case — a woods completely annihilated and reverting to pasture. The drought has accomplished this feat with such terrible speed and thoroughness that one can’t help but feel the shock and awe of it.

But mostly what I feel is sadness, mixed in with the dread of what unexpected change will intrude next.

The first “next” has come this winter, riding on those arctic blasts that have taken their toll on our vegetables. Winds up to 50 mph have been knocking down hundreds of rotting hackberry and cedar elm. Three times this month our road was blocked by a fallen tree. In the 10-acre flood plain between our barn and the river, the entire woods is dead — a vertical graveyard of gray limbs drowning in a sea of brown ragweed.

These fronts always startle the nerves at first – a wave of frigid air rushes in and you can almost see its icy claws shaking the canopy overhead. But now those canopies are less than bare ruined choirs — thinned out or completely gone — and the wind feels sharper and meaner, as if it’s brought along an angry Paul Bunyan to knock the stuffing out of this place.

Even hackberries along the river have succumbed to drought
Crack, snap, and thud. This is how a forest disappears. One tree at a time. How unnatural this thing they all succession. It feels more like surrender and I, the owner, feel like nature tricked me. This woods hasn’t simply retreated, it’s disappeared — in two short years!

Any woods in Texas is a bonus and this one was lush and wild when we purchased it in 2009. Its trees thrived in the rich silty loam, growing 50 feet or more. Some of the hackberries were so big their gray trunks were as smooth as beech. They offered shade and windbreak and food for wildlife. If I’d had the water and time I would have tried saving each of them; after all, a farmer’s natural impulse is to nurse the farm’s weak and withering.

But these are not natural times, at least from my limited perspective of 56 years. And so I decided to do a very unnatural thing. I decided to assist the Master Pruner by pushing the trees over with the tractor. It’s a slightly dangerous yet oddly pleasant job. I feel part bully, part casket bearer as I drive up to them, raise the front loader, and size up their weakness.

My tractor is not big, so I have to ram with force and speed. As in any fight, a half-hearted attempt is ruinous. The tree will either let go and topple or spring back and wobble; if the latter, the tractor rears up like a horse, its front wheels spinning a foot or two above the ground. As I back off, the limbs above me sometimes snap and cascade down on me. It’s then that I realize how just dangerous — and exciting — this is.

And oddly therapeutic. It’s as if the farm’s new year’s resolution — and mine — were joined together: Clear out the deadwood and make room for new life.

Once I am used to a vertical place turned horizontal, I hope I’ll come to enjoy the idea of a pasture, with its green grass and its open space and clear view down to the river. I’m sure to plant a few trees, too. They won’t be hackberries.

FIre and Rain

Fires were burning in Bastrop County this week, columns of white smoke drifting across the countryside as landowners took advantage of the burn ban lift.

Ever since the devasting wildfires this past summer, those of us who work or live here have felt slightly terrorized at the sight or smell of smoke. For months we lived in a tinderbox, our homes and forests one spark away from destruction. A few inches of rain these past weeks and suddenly it’s safe again to light a fire. The mind, however, doesn’t quite accept it, as if this wet stuff is a mirage shimmering on the sun-baked horizon.

That explains some of the anxiety I felt this week as I went about burning the few remaining brush piles on our cleared land. Even without the residue of the Bastrop fires clinging in the background, I’m always a little spooked by those big flames licking the sky, the roaring heat, and the taunting wind that always seems to pick up just as you light the match.

I’ve had winds change direction on me in mid burn. I’ve had embers sail a hundred feet away and threaten to set an adjacent field on fire. And then there was the time I lit a pile of dried juniper and rushed to move the tractor out of the way, only it wouldn’t start. The flames rose. The wind shifted toward me. My son Ethan had been sitting at the wheel and I started yelling – what did you touch? I checked the PTO. It was off. I made sure the clutch was depressed all the way. Still, the engine wouldn’t turn. Now I was panicking. Another minute and I would have to abandoned our new Kabota tractor. Then I looked down and saw the problem – a stick had wedged under the foot throttle, preventing it from returning to its resting position. Ironically, that safety feature had nearly caused me a heart attack. Now I never park the tractor close to a brush pile.

All across the county landowers are surveying the damage from the drought. The loss of woodlands is so extensive that they will eventually become fields or meadows. I could keep brush piles burning for a year there are so many dead trees on our property. But I’ll let nature do most of the work. The battering winds knock the trees down. The rain helps them melt into the ground. This is nature’s other method – slow but complete. I prefer it to the flames and can only hope the rains keep coming.

The Gift of Grass

Farmers have always looked out for one another in hard times. They know that nature is their superior, and time comes when nature’s blows are too heavy to bear alone.

That explains why I was driving through the dry, hayless Texas countryside last week with two round bales loaded on the trailer. We haven’t bought a round bale since the prices more than doubled from last year; instead, we moved our sheep, goats and horse to our river farm, where they have been surviving the past two months on mesquite, soapwood saplings, and dead hackberry leaves.

Just when we thought we would have to cull the herd prematurely, we learned that organic farmers in Iowa were donating their hay to Texans. These rain-drenched mid-westerners had a banner year for hay and had read about the devastating drought and fire this summer. They didn’t just read and shake their heads in sympathy. They offered to give nearly 30 bales to other organic farmers suffering in Central Texas. All we had to do was pay for shipping.

Shipping, yes. There was the rub. Sue Beckwith, president of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, took on the mission of finding truckers who wouldn’t take advantage of us. After dozens of phone calls and hard bargaining, but she finally found the right hauler. Moreover, she twisted Farm Aid’s arm to donate $2,500 to the cause.

As a result, about a dozen farmers came to Coyote Creek Mill in Elgin to pick up their gift of grass. Our two bales were met with 30 hungry mouths. I dropped the bales under an old pecan, both for shade and the manure that would fertilize the stressed-out tree.

I grew up with Amish and Mennonite farmers traveling far distances to rebuild communities devastated by floods. They took their tools and strong hands and generous hearts, leaving behind double workloads for their families. I never appreciated their sacrifice until I had my own farm. It’s part of their culture and their religion.

The same ethic can be found just down the road from our River Farm, at a saw mill where I’ve been buying lumber for our barn. When I arrived last week, I was greeted with a strange site – a massive pile of blackened pine logs. Steve, the owner, has been hauling them out of the Lost Pines forest scorched by the wildfire. His brother and several church members had lost their homes in the blaze. He planned to mill the logs and give much of the lumber back to these needy families. The woods they loved and lost would become the walls and roofs of their new homes.

Hay and lumber. Feeding and rebuilding. These are the gifts and the stories that emerge from this once-in-a-lifetime drought. Nature may knock us down, but human nature lifts us back up.

Surviving the Bastrop Fire

Kay Rogers has a Texas-sized sense of humor and, amazingly, it was still intact as she sat in the kitchen, drawing a map of the Bastrop fire and trying to explain the unimaginable:

“The fire started here and our farm is way down here, 12 miles away. It could have taken many paths but I swear it had its GPS set on my address.”

Indeed, it did – hers and hundreds of other addresses across Bastrop County, racing through those 12 miles in less than two hours. When the smoke appeared in her fields, Kay relied on her lawyer’s collected mind to make some fast decisions – moved the tractors and vehicles and equipment out into an open field, opened the gate for the cattle – and then time ran out and she was running, too, with just her dog and the clothes on her back.

Later that evening Kay called us. Erin and I had planned to have lunch with her on Tuesday in Bastrop to talk about the New Farm Institute. Kay is on the board and her knowledge and dedication to Austin and Bastrop is long and wide.

“I’ve lost everything,” she said.

For the past three days, that terrifying phrase has been repeated far too many times in Bastrop. As newcomers to the county who’ve been busy getting our River Farm up and going, we haven’t gotten to know many people here. The fire changed that.

As I watched clouds of smoke roiling in the distance, I found it hard to concentrate on farming. The former reporter in me wanted to get into the thick of it and tell people’s stories and inspire others to help. It didn’t seem right to be planting fields and building fences when farms like Kay’s were being laid to waste.

By Sunday afternoon I had to do something when my eye caught a fresh cloud of smoke to the South. It grew fast, black plumes billowing up as it devoured and spit out another home . I hopped in my van and soon was caught up in the confusion and panic at the intersection of Highway 71 and FM 1209. Homeowners were pulling out hoses and watering their lawns. Others were packing up their pickups and getting ready to leave. Thick smoke slipped quietly though the thick underbrush as I helped a man hitch up a vintage Airstream his father left him.

Fire trucks raced down the dirt road, dust mixing with black smoke and fear. I wished him good luck and headed back to the relative safety of our farm.

Friends and family have been calling from around the country to see how we are. Suddenly, the little town of Bastrop is on the map, and now, tragically, it is a place seriously diminished. Its historic Lost Pines park is mostly gone and miles of countryside are scarred. Hundreds are homeless. Two people have died.

Central Texans will be talking about this wildfire for years to come: how the hottest summer on record went out in flames, how the misery and loss of a historical drought set the stage for an even worse fate, and how strangers helped strangers and friends drew closer to friends as hard times stretched across the horizon.

Lights, Camera, Overalls!

When you work long hours for low pay, it’s hard to pass up the chance for easy money. That explains why a dozen farmers were sitting in an office on a beautiful Spring-like morning, when they should have been out in the fields planting like mad.

Astro Original, a Canadian yogurt company, was updating its national ad campaign and a local talent scout had sent out a casting call, offering union wages for a real farmer to play a bit part in a TV commercial. The man they wanted would be “male aged 35-40, ruggedly handsome, weathered, strong. Think ‘Mike Rowe’ from Dirty Jobs. NON- SPEAKING.”

When the call went out over our Growers Alliance of Central Texas listserv, I knew there would be some fun responses. “We’re weathered, talk too much, and too old,” one seasoned farmer wrote back.

Arriving early at the film studios, I waited in the parking lot in my mud-spattered truck. A stylish, attractive woman, obviously a model, walked out to her car. Was she auditioning for the farmer’s wife, I wondered? I started to do the math. My age minus 35. I was old enough to be her father.

I hate commercials even more than fast food; I don’t even own a TV, and I have no idea who Mike Rowe is. That didn’t matter. We have bills to pay, and it sounded like easy money. I might add that the scout said I looked perfect for the part, but I’m guessing the other 11 farmers in the room had heard the same thing.

“You get dragged in here, too?” asked a farmer friend looking over at me as he signed in.

“Yeah, Erin encouraged me. She said it would be fun.”

We both looked slightly embarrassed as we took a seat and sized up our competition.

“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” quipped the guy next to me. He wore a pony tail and a ring in his lip. He didn’t know who Mike Rowe was either.

You get farmers sequestered in a room – even a film studio – and you get a lot of farm talk. Real models might have shared their worries – to shave or not, what kind of boots to wear, whether to wear old jeans or new. We could see the real models out in the lounge, waiting their turn to audition for the other parts in the commercial. They had glossy portfolio shots in hand and looked cool, calm – and very clean.

The night before my audition, I looked over the storyboard the talent scout had sent. “We open,” it began, “on a 35-year-old woman standing by the kitchen window in her cottage-like home. She is holding a tub of Astro Original yogurt as she raises a spoonful to her mouth, closes her eyes and savours it.” The next frame was where I would come in: “She looks outside the window, where her husband – a farmer – is seen sitting by a group of cows in a barn. Suddenly, the camera quickly moves through the window, revealing that we are on a dairy farm.”

No worries here. I grew up around dairy farms. I carried enough milk pails to give me curvature of the spine. Okay, so I was a few years older than the requested 38-42 age range for the husband, but the scout had seen my photo. I was a perfect fit, but who else was, too? An imaginary parade of other farmers I knew walked by me: younger, stronger, more rugged.

After too much talk about vegetables and a half hour past my 12:05 audition time, I was up. Our scout opened the door for me and inside were at least six other people, sitting behind tables covered with computers, cameras, notebooks. All eyes were upon me as the room began to shrink – and get warm.

I tried to follow their instructions – stand behind the tape on the floor, look into the camera and say your name, hold up your hands next to your face. The last command threw me. Why did they care about my hands? Did they want to make sure I had all my fingers?

Then I was asked to smile. I’ve smiled a million times for the camera but suddenly my lips were frozen, contorted into what felt like a terrified, lopsided grin.

Next I was asked to carry the plastic bucket from one table and pour its invisible contents into an invisible bottle on the opposite table. All week I had been carrying buckets of potatoes effortlessly across the field. This one felt like a foreign object. It was plastic and odd sized and had nothing in it. Slow down, they said. They made me do it twice, in opposite direction, to show off both profiles of my contorted face. I notice my hands as I slowly poured my imaginary milk: wrinkled and cracked as an old squash rotting on the compost heap.

Finally, they asked me to do it once more “but this time, take off your hat.” I could feel their eyes upon me – or more precisely, my naked head. I could almost hear their gasps. Oh, my, what a receding hairline, and did you see that huge bald spot when he leaned over? Add these features to the sagging chin and you have – I was quite honest with myself at this moment of naked truth – not a husband but a grandfather. Fun!

As I left the studio, I poked my head into the waiting room. “Good luck guys,” I said. “Be sure to pour the milk out slowly.”

Eating Francis

Could I kill Francis? That is the big, bothersome question these days. Could I dust off the rifle in the closet and point it between his little piggly wiggly eyes and pull the trigger, just like I did as a farm boy? Or has 30 years of suburban life made me too soft?

Butchering pigs was one of my most vivid memories growing up on a gentleman’s farm in Pennsylvania. I can still see the neighboring Mennonites arrive with black kettles and big sharp knives. And how Tom, our hired hand, showed my dad where to aim the rifle as I stood between them in that damp cement stall, two men from vastly different worlds connecting at this life-and-death moment. Who finally pulled the trigger is not so clear. Not that it matters; I was so young and so close to the action that the blast penetrated my core, tattooing blood and gunpowder and testosterone across  my senses.

In those cool November mornings a hunter was born. A lover of guns. And men with guns. Daniel Boone, Hawkeye, John Wayne. Killing animals, whether songbirds or fat pigs, seemed a natural part of my youth. Then I moved to suburbia at age 13. In time, killing for food seemed cruel and uncivilized, a brutality I could no longer stomach.

Now that I’m back on the farm, I have this fantasy that I should butcher Francis right here behind the barn, just as the owners of this place must have done 50 years ago. I could invite my neighbors from the RV park across the street and the students from the University of Texas down the road. We would stand around him and celebrate his short but happy life, sending him off to pig heaven with tomato pie and a prayer. No more ignorance and denial about how bacon is really made. But that nagging question: who would pull the trigger?

Oct 20: Finally, a fall-like day and I feel caught up with farming. Is that possible? All the cover crops are coming up. All the bugs are under control. All the weeds are out competed by vegetables that swell up from the rain. And there is Francis, feasting on tomatoes, oblivious to his fate. He looks like he is smiling as he eats them, juice streaming from his mouth.

Oct. 24. On the way to school today, I told Ethan, our four-year-old, that we would be butchering Francis soon. “What does butchering mean?” he asks. “It means that you get out a big watermelon knife and cut him up in little pieces.” “Does that mean you have to look at blood?” he ask. “Yes. And it means we won’t hear him grunting when we go feed the animals in the morning.” “That’s okay,” he says, matter-of-factly. “We can buy another one.” How did he get so tough so soon? Oh, yes, he’s a boy; so different from his sister, Avery.

Oct 26: I call Taylor Meat. A curt voice answers the phone, as you would expect from a butcher whose name is Adolph. I tell him I have a pig that needs to make an appointment. Appointment? Not the right term, I suppose, but what other word fits – execution date? “Let me check the books,” he barks. “Nov. 6…We open at 6 and like them here by 8.” So early, I think, just like a surgery. Now that the date is set, I have to figure out how to get him there; we are farmers without a pickup or a trailer.

Oct 27: Before falling asleep last night, I read a chapter from “Omnivores Dilemma” to my wife Erin. It included a description of killing cattle. An accidental pig farmer ever since falling in love with Francis, she wants to know how butchering works. This was as good a description as any – too good perhaps because it ruined her sleep. And then this morning we read a front-page story about bandits in Mexico entering a dance hall, opening a bag, and spilling six human heads to the floor. And another article in the Times about medics training for Iraq, practicing their life-saving skills on pigs by shooting them with AK47s and setting them on fire. Suddenly, killing Francis for food doesn’t seem so cruel.

At the Manor Farmers Market, Farmer Russell tells me about ranchers near him making money from rich hunters. One New York City businessman paid $5,000 to hunt a monster wild boar. The ranchers trapped it in a cage, let it loose, and after a day’s hunt, the unscathed boar ran back into the cage. They got their money – and their pig back. No such fate for our pig, I’m afraid.

Oct. 30: I wake up at 5 this morning to put hay in for Francis and cover his doorway from a strong wind. I kneel beside him in the dark, feeling the soft hairs behind his ears and listening to him chew his feed. He sounds like a kid sucking his thumb or a cat lapping milk.

Today, a neighbor will bring over the trailer we will borrow to take Francis to market. Tomorrow, an upright freezer will be installed in the shed (Francis will come back in a cooler — cut, wrapped, and frozen hard as a rock). Now that the end is near, this place feels a little like Death Row, just more spacious and green. At the Austin book festival Sunday I paged through a book on the Amish in Texas. I stared hard at the photo of a hefty woman in a long black dress taken just after butchering a pig. The pig’s black head, identical to Francis, lay snout-side-up on a board. In the background was the skinned carcass, a ghostly shroud of fat.

I debated whether to show it to Erin. Would it make things worse? Probably. I’m wracking my brain trying to figure out how I can soften the blow, like a last-minute purchase of cute piglets. There are none to be found. No, we have to face this squarely, this hard truth about farming: Everything that grows gets cut down. We raised this pig to eat and cutting time has come. It’s just that 300 pounds of flesh doesn’t cut so nicely as a 10-pound pumpkin or a 1-pound tomato. Sam, the diabetic neighbor who lent us the trailer, says he will take the pig’s feet. “It’s bad for you,” he admits. “All fat. But soooo good. I don’t guess four more feet will kill me.”

Nov 4: As a dry run, Erin and I try to coax Francis up the trailer ramp, without luck. We end up sitting on it and watching him wallow in the dirt of his pen. “He looks like a chubby third grader,” she said. “Did you know he has 12 nipples?” No, but secretly I had wondered about them while rubbing his belly the other morning. Why should nature give a male 12 nipples? There is so much more to pigs than I ever imagined, like his different grunts, a language I cannot parse but know is more sophisticated than most animals.

Nov. 6. I wake up sad today. Francis represents my farming dream made live and tangible. I remember how he squealed when I first hauled him out of the car six months ago; he was Erin’s surprise gift for my 50th birthday and his arrival coincided with our first week on this farm. What noises will he make today when I push him up the ramp and close the gate?

At 7 a.m., Francis is finally loaded and I am off in my old Volvo, hauling our pig in a rusty little trailer. It’s a beautiful, misty ride through the countryside. Suddenly, one of the wooden panels I wired to the side flies loose and presses Francis against the gate. I pull over and fix it, on this country road amid miles of cotton fields freshly sprayed with poison. Red warning signs are posted every 50 yards but you have to get out and step up close to the rows to read what they say. And no one does. Like with our meat, most of us remain blind to the inputs used to clothe and feed us.

Just outside Taylor I pull up behind a yellow, two-story brick building that looks like an old hospital. I’m told to go around back to the scales. A series of stalls and paddocks funnel into a long, fenced chute that feeds into the abattoir. While I’m waiting for a farmer to unload his steer, a monster pickup pulls up to the dumpster. It’s one of the butchers, a big guy with a black rubber boots on his feet and a white shower cap on his head. He lifts a trashcan up to the dumpster. It is labeled “Inedible” and out of it spills a slurry of deer parts.

The old Mexican who helps me wrangle Francis out of the trailer looks glum and irritated. Either he doesn’t speak English or is so dulled by his job he wants minimal contact with animal or owner. Francis must smell trouble because he won’t get the hell off. In fact, he has pinned both of us against the front of the trailer. Mr. Wordless is twisting his tail and kneeing his rump, but Francis won’t budge. This is when we need Erin. She could soothe and talk her big baby down the ramp, but we are men and must use brute force, which we do. And it’s messy. Francis craps on the Mr. Wordless’ pants (still no words). I step in the water bucket Erin had tucked in the trailer as a mother-like afterthought, which, of course, was untouched until my foot landed in it.

I never knew a pig could squeal so long and loud. How embarrassing, like a spoiled brat at a public event. After lots of shoving and cursing we finally get him to the ground and into the pen that is built over the scales. Mr. Wordless steps behind the giant scale and I can see the knife in his hand, scraping the shit off his pants. His only utterance comes as he peers up at the arrow and it’s not a word but a number: 395. Whoops. Not only is our pig ill-tempered, he is obese, at least by today’s pork factory standards. He hands me a slip of paper I’m suppose to take back to the front office. It’s No. 545, which is how we will identify our Francis from all the other boxes to be picked up at the other end of the building.

I feel tired when I come home. I clean out the trailer, the last smells of Francis hosed into the ground. All the mindless habits that sustained him– turning on the water, opening the feed bin marked “Pig,” closing the pen — they all stand out, as if known for the first time. This farm is 400 pounds lighter yet I feel heavier, as if I’ve already consumed the part of him that cannot be processed and packaged, the part that created the 12 nipples and the squeal…

At dusk I find Erin and Avery under the oak tree, sitting on the swing. Erin is holding our six-year-old, comforting her as best she can. “Maybe daddy can explain it,” she says. “I’m having trouble. She wants to know why everything has to die.”

It must feel, indeed, like “everything” to her. Chickens eaten by our dog. A rattle snake killed in the barn. And then yesterday the baby rat that got trapped in the feed bin. “It’s not fair…He’s little… He has more life to live…” Everything she said was true. Everything I said was only half true – rats carry disease…rats multiply out of control…Rats. Rats. Rats. It took me half an hour to drown the little guy.

I explain to Avery that Francis was old for a pig. I tell her

Eating Francis, Part 2

Life sure is strange.

Today the FDA announced it has approved the sale of cloned meats. The decision is based on a study conducted by a biotech company based here in Austin.

The idea of cloning pigs and eating them sets my mind reeling, as if science fiction has finally become a reality and I’ve never given it a thought until now. So I start thinking. How immoral it is. How cloning would be the end of life – and death – as we know it.

But, hey, what if we had cloned Francis? All this fuss over killing and eating him could have been eliminated. No sadness. No remorse. We could kill and eat Francis over and over again…Forever.

Wow! Eating Francis forever…without a second thought.

 Farmer Franklin and His Onions

Last week, I brought home 30 bundles of freshly cut onion starts. Like many of the small organic farmers around here, I’ve been buying them from Franklin Zeischang in Taylor. Farmer Franklin has specialized in growing onions since 1983.

“That first year we had a record freeze and I lost all of them,” he told me last Monday evening as we walked along neat rows of healthy green alums. “I figured I had experienced the worst and I just kept going.”

I thought about Franklin’s comment as I drove home, the smell of his red and yellow granix onions filling my van as I passed row after row of commodity crops. Franklin’s place was an oddity out there – a modest ranch house and two acres of naturally grown vegetables. He lived alone and he specialized in onions and found a niche selling to other farmers.

Starting onions from seeds is a slow business. It requires a certain kind of patience many vegetable farmers don’t have. Growing onions fit well with his methodical, reliable nature and I always looked forward to buying those fat neat bundles tied up in string.

Two days after our visit, Franklin died alone at his home of a heart attack. Another farmer friend stopped by and Franklin’s brother was there to greet him. News of his death was a shock. He was only 59 and seemed fine when I saw him; a little slow coming out of the field but he was eager to show me the new cold frames he had built this summer.

It’s unnerving when you buy a living thing from someone and a few days later the person who grew it is no longer alive. The onions we set out in the rows the next morning took on an added value — a meaning, if that is possible — and we planted them with something close to reverence. And care. These onions were not going to die.

I had the same experience three years ago when another friend, Farmer Russell, dropped off two piglets at our farm. Russell raised cattle and hogs, and after he became president of the Austin Farmers Market he got to know a lot of vegetable farmers, too. He said we were a contentious lot – competitive and complaining and the like.

We spent hours talking during the slow markets and Erin and I grew fond of him and his gentle, sharing nature. A few days after he delivered the pigs, he drowned in a stock pond. It was a terrible, mysterious death, and after that day, those two pigs of his took on a different character, as if imbued with some of Russell’s traits.

In a time and place where farming has become a rare profession and the average age of a farmer is 57, there is a greater sense of loss when a farmer dies.  Farmer Franklin and Farmer Russell had two generations’ worth of farm knowledge and experience that got buried with them. It isn’t easy farming in Central Texas; we need all the wisdom and experience we can find.

The onions that are now setting down roots in our fields can’t speak for Farmer Franklin, but I have no doubt they will taste a little sweeter this Spring.