Sunday, July 23, 2017

You Don't Look Like a Farmer

“You don’t look like a farmer,” the man said to me at my farmer’s market table. “Maybe you just wear the hat.” I was wearing the cowboy hat I like to wear for markets. I didn’t feel insulted. I know that people have specific ideas of what a farmer should look like. I assured him I was a bona fide, sweating-in-the-dirt farmer, and we laughed.  I thought about the other farmers I know and wonder how close they come to his idea of “farmer”.

Two friends, each young mothers who are the primary caretakers of their small farms, one with and one without the help of her husband, they are hard working farmers. The woman who has turned her urban front yard into a garden and keeps chickens in her backyard, growing enough to sell her excess at her community’s farmer’s market; she doesn’t really look like a farmer, but she is. The young mixed race gay couple, new farmers raising chickens for eggs, and vegetables and fruits in rural Georgia to sell at city markets, individually might look like farmers, but as a family they don’t fit the stereotype.  The young brothers whose “fields” are the suburban yards of their neighbors where they grow vegetables instead of lawns. The homeowners get fresh food in compensation for the use of their yards with plenty leftover to sell at markets. They look like farmers, but are farming in a very unconventional, un-stereotypical way. There’s my friend who raises chickens and bees on a ⅕ acre suburban homestead with her husband. She starts seeds in her basement and has turned their backyard into a nursery, selling the plants she started in the basement to home gardeners and other farmers. She has the heart and soul of a farmer and dreams of acreage.

I did a Google search on “farmer” and the overwhelming majority of images were white men between about 40 and 70 years old. In the first 50 images only two were female and ten were people of color. An interesting side note, one was Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, a local farming luminary, who would fit most people’s stereotype of farmer but seems to be fast becoming more of a businessman and farm facilitator, enabling his daughters, their families and other young farmer wannabes to keep the dream of regenerative farming alive.

My paternal grandfather was a farmer, and he fit the image. My grandmother would have been called a farm wife. But she was the one on the farm all day, weeding the garden, tying up tomato plants, walking the pastures to check on the cows and collecting eggs from the chickens. She was really no less a farmer just because she also did the laundry, cooked breakfast and supper and “put up” (canned) the beans and tomatoes the garden produced. But she didn’t “look like a farmer”. In my young mind at the time, my grandfather’s full time day job supplemented their farm income to raise to raise four children (and later to entertain their families at holidays and keep 12 grandchildren at overlapping times in the summer as if they were running a summer camp). The reality was that my grandfather had a full time job, originally with the TVA and later with a zinc mine company in east Tennessee, to support his family; the farm was “on the side” and without his full-time income and his and my grandmother’s hard work, there might not have been a farm by the time I came along.

I’ve learned that the stereotype of farmer actually varies depending on your culture. My stereotypical farmer was a white man, middle-aged, in overalls and a gimme cap with a tractor or tobacco logo above the bill and pull-on, knee-high, rubber, water-proof work boots. Maybe he had a little chew of tobacco in his cheek once in awhile or smoked a pipe like my grandfather did. The man who told me I didn’t look like a farmer was an older, African-American. In my newly acquired and limited experience, I’m guessing that  his cultural stereotypical image of farmer may be closer to what I’ve always called a “cowboy”: cowboy hat, denim jeans or overalls and well-worn cowboy boots. A stereotypical rice farmer in the Philippines (a few of them showed up in my search) wears a wide-brimmed straw hat, short pants and works barefoot, knee deep in water.

The thing that these stereotypes all have in common is that they are male. Farm women in heterosexual relationships have always worked beside their men, just as hard as the men, gotten just as dirty and sweaty, but are defined by the time they take out to bear children and cook meals. According to the 2012 census of agriculture, women are a growing force in farming, making up 30% of this country’s farm operators nationally (14% of principal farm operators are women). I wonder how much of that is an increase in women working on the farm and how much is simply an increase in women who have always worked on the farm finally beginning to identify themselves as farmers?

From the 2012 census we also learn that the average age of farm operators at the time was 58 and that the numbers of farmers 55 and older had increased since 2007 while the number of farmers 45 and younger had decreased. But I think we’re seeing a change in that trend. As anecdotal observation, it seems to me that there is a rise in younger people and women becoming small farm operators, in particular in the arena of sustainable and organic agriculture. Check out your local farmer’s market and look at the people behind those tables. They aren’t there for eye candy. They are usually the farmers. If not the principal farmer, they are generally at least a farm worker.

But it takes longer for stereotypes to change than it does for reality to change. A friend, who is the principal farmer at her hog farm, told me that she makes sure her business partner on the farm, a man who “looks like a farmer” but isn’t, goes to the markets once in awhile so the customers think they are talking to the “farmer”. So what does a farmer really look like? A farmer looks like me, and maybe you.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017


There is a dead hen in the basement waiting for me to do something with her. When I opened the coop this morning, she was on the floor stuck in a place she couldn't get out of, unable to walk or even stand. But somehow she had made her way across the floor about 10 feet from the spot she slept in last night. I carried her to the isolation pen we keep in the basement for sick birds. Her hind quarter was a mess so I cleaned her up with a warm, wet towel, left her water and food and finished feeding the birds, goats and dogs (cats get fed earliest). All morning as I worked through the animals I knew I was going to have to euthanize her. When and how to do that was in the back of my mind throughout morning animal care.

A few months ago she fell climbing up or down on the roosting bars. I don't know which. I found her that morning, again as I was opening the coop, hanging with her foot caught between the lowest roost and the ladder leading to them. That morning I gently untangled her and put her to the side of the coop in an area where she could rest without being in the cross path of the other chickens. I checked on her frequently until she managed to walk to the feeder. She limped and stumbled around for a couple of days, seeming determined to get on with life. I admired her guts. The foot that had been caught was swollen and eventually both feet swelled up some, but walking seemed to get a little easier for her. I checked for bumble foot, but that wasn't it. She was getting around fine, she just didn't go far from the coop. I knew she was eating and drinking, and the other chickens weren't picking at her the way birds sometimes do to a weak one. So I let her go. She was a feisty old broad. More than once I saw her peck at a younger hen getting between her and the food, and she seemed to be avoiding the roosters pretty well.

So this morning I was sad to know that she had reached the end of her happy life (I'm not telling you the full details of why I knew she would not recover. If you want to know you can ask.) It's not like it would be the first time I have killed a chicken. Usually the killing is for meat. But this old girl was one of the 5, one of the last of the 5, that we brought with us from the city to the farm, and she was clearly determined to hang in there as long as she could. But she saved me the trouble. After feeding the dogs and letting them out, I checked on her as I was taking hay to the goats. She was face down in her food, having struggled to the end. I decided I would need breakfast and coffee, lots of coffee, before disposing of her. What I'd like to do is grab a trash bag and toss her in the trash for Friday morning pick-up. But instead I will dig a hole under the long-term compost pile and bury her there. She will continue to be part of the farm.

Then I have a market to harvest for, so no time to dally. Don't be sorry for my loss. It's part of farming. She was an admirable old bird.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Co-parenting hens?

I'm fascinated by the animals' parenting habits. I've noticed the last couple of days that the little white Americauna hen comes down from the goat pen in the afternoon for a break from the eggs. She eats, drinks and dust bathes (and fends off the advances of a rooster). Today when I noticed that she was off the nest I rushed up to the goat stall (where she's been nesting under a platform) to see how many eggs she was sitting on. That's when I discovered that while she was on break, one of her sisters was on the nest.
I don't know if they are co-parenting the eggs or if the brown hen was just using the nest to lay while her sister was off of it. When the ducks hatched ducklings in a rose bush a couple of years ago, we noticed one duck missing for a day or two. I hoped she had gone broody and was sitting on eggs, but didn't know where she was. Later I realized that the two females were alternating on the eggs. The first showed back up and the other disappeared and vice versa. Near the end they both stayed with the eggs until they hatched. The only other hen hatch we've had was a New Hampshire Red who went broody in the chicken coop. She didn't have to go far to eat and drink, so there was no need for her nest to be covered while she was gone. (All speculation here.)

After a few minutes the white hen heads back up the hill. Finding her sister still on the nest, she loiters around the goat pen for a while and then runs back down the hill. I was ready to give up. I thought maybe she didn't want to go to the nest while I was watching. When she went back up to the goat pen, I stayed away but close enough to watch. She scratched around the stall for a few minutes until her sister came off the nest. Then they both ran back down the hill leaving the nest empty. I'm not even speculating about that. I put out more food and took my chance to see how many eggs they have. There are 4 Americauna eggs (light blue) and the three brown ones I added yesterday. I think one of the brown eggs is a Salmon Faverolle (lighter brown and smaller). My goal here is to produce an olive egger hen. I've read that mixing a brown egg layer breed with blue egg breed can produce an olive egg laying hen. One rooster is Americauna and the other is New Hampshire Red/Faverolle mix so my chances are good unless they are all boys (unlikely). Then we have meat. Hard to lose.
After she had enough to eat, the white hen went back up to the nest and settled back on it. I'm pretty sure she spent the night in the goat stall on the nest Wednesday night. I know she did last night, so 19 (or so) days to go. Fingers crossed.

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Little Duck

The little duck stands in the middle of the yard, looking around, and wondering how he got here. Something in his head is telling him he should be flying somewhere as the days get shorter and the weather turns colder, but he isn’t sure where. The only flying he’s done is a few feet, or sometimes yards, at a time. All he knows is what’s here. He grew up here, made friends here, and stays here all year. His instincts tell him there is a large body of water he should be floating on with a flock of birds who look just like him. But he’s never seen this body of water and doesn’t remember any other ducks who look just like him. There is water here, small pools, but enough to float on once in awhile, enough to splash in cleaning himself off, plenty to drink.

There are two girl ducks who live here, following him around, bobbing their heads flirtatiously. They don’t look exactly like him, but close enough. He looks out for them when they eat or find a hiding place to lay an egg. There are two bullies here, guineas, who are noisy and chase them away from food sometimes. But they've learned to avoid the bullies when they can, and food is everywhere. The chickens mostly ignore him and his girlfriends, and there is lots of space to wander around all day eating and chatting with the girls. Sometimes they even wander up to the goat pen where there is more water, more mud to dig into and more bugs to eat. The goats ignore them, too.

At night they sleep on the floor of the big coop where the chickens all sleep high up on roosts. They are closed in and safe in a dry corner together. In the morning they run out, anxious to trek around and find more food. Really, why does he need to fly anywhere when all he needs is here?

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Car lights in the rain

From the top of my hill in the goat pen I can hear the cars and see the headlights through the trees on highway 92. It's only a two lane road but it's a major thoroughfare between Douglasville and Fairburn and on to Fayetteville, and it's always busy. On a night like tonight, in misty rain and cold, I remember traveling in the back seat of my father's Ford station wagon on roads like this to his parents' farm in east Tennessee. My eyes always glued to window watching the lights of houses shining through the trees, I speculated about what went on behind those windows. Was there a family? Were there children? What were they like?

In my childhood Christmas time was like this, cold and rainy, and travel happened at night. If I was lucky there would be reindeer lights on a rooftop or Santa outlined in lights on a lawn, sometimes a bright tree through a window. It was a ride of great anticipation. My brother and sister might be sleeping on the seat beside me, but I couldn't sleep.

No matter what time we got there, my grandparents would be awake and ready with hugs to greet us. There would be strings of lights around the living room windows and steaming hot chocolate on the stove. The next day we would walk out to the fields and find the perfect tree to cut and bring back to the house for decorating, maybe my grandfather would shoot mistletoe out of a tree with his shotgun. Presents would magically appear under the tree over the next few days. I spent days running through fields of cows and crossing barbed wire fences onto neighboring farms, knowing that if they saw me they'd know who I was and to whom I belonged, or climbing the split log walls of the old barn and playing in tall stacks of hay bales. In the evening I loved sitting on the basement steps to watch my grandfather shovel coal into the big pot bellied heater burning warmth through the house while my grandmother worked her magic at the stove with meat and vegetables that often originated on that farm.

Funny how car lights on a rainy road can sometimes bring back the best memories of your life.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

No short pants

I never wear shorts on the farm, ever. Now I have another reason not to.

I've been a farmer for 5 years and had several reasons to not wear shorts. I used to live in shorts, flip flops and tank tops in the summer. I still wear tank tops, but between the snakes, poison ivy and a rooster that attacked my legs (now terminated), I don't wear shorts or flip-flops. Well,  until recently. I haven't seen any snakes yet this spring; the goats have almost gotten rid of the poison ivy and, as I said, the attack rooster is no longer with us. So on an occasional weekend afternoon, when I'm relaxing on the porch on a hot, lazy afternoon I may wear shorts and flip flops.

This evening I had planned to change into long pants before starting the evening animal chores, but it just didn't seem necessary. I did leave the flip flops in the house and wore garden shoes because, you know, there's just too much shit out there. Chickens, ducks and guineas got their evening grain and headed to their coops. The goats get a snack of juice bar scraps in the morning and evening when I milk Daisy - for which I am very grateful to a juice bar that will go unnamed lest they get in trouble and we stop getting goat snacks from them.

This evening I carried the bowls up the hill to the goat pen and started dividing them up. Two bowls for Quinta and Paco and a bucket for Daisy (she is the one producing milk, after all) into the main shed where Quinta and Paco eat in one room while I milk Daisy in the other. Sister has a pen she eats in. Spike and Dena eat outside unless it raining. If I don't separate them somehow, only a couple of them would get to eat. Goats don't like to share. When one is finished, he or she goes after the next bowl. You have to eat fast and be aggressive in goat world. I put Quinta and Paco's bowls and the bucket on a little shelf and then I feel tiny, scratchy, mousy toes on my ankles. Yikes! That'll freak you out a little in a mostly dark room.

There are mice that hang out in the goat shed because some of the goats are messy eaters and the mice get to clean up what the goats leave behind. I'm sure I just scared the hell out of the little guy; he jumped and accidentally bounced off of me on his way to safety. Honestly that was the first thing I thought, too, even though I couldn't see what got me. Then the second thing I thought was "snake?" and I jumped, a hair too late if it had been a snake. But no, it was tiny toenails. A snake would have left a mark. The only snakes we see are the non-venomous, farm-friendly varieties. I won't kill one, but I am cautious because I'm sure it would hurt to get bitten on bare skin. But even just to avoid tiny toenails in the dark, maybe long pants are a good idea.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

So here's how my morning went

After early morning chores and breakfast, the dogs woke up and asked for their breakfast. Then we went back outside. That's when I saw a chicken inside the lower goat pen (an area we aren't using for the goats right now) lying on her back and 2 other hens frantically running up and down the fence trying to magically will an opening that wasn't there. I thought the down chicken was dead and headed for the gate to go in and collect her. Damn, what got her? Then I saw her chest rising and falling, still breathing. Now I'm wondering just how much alive she is. Is she so close to death I'll have to finish her off?

On my way into the pen I found this:

and this:

Can you see that those are 2 piles of feathers? My assumption was that whatever put one bird on its back had gotten away with another one. I'd seen one of the roosters and a few hens in this area earlier this morning when I was with the goats. I figured a roo had been taken out protecting his ladies. It happens.

When I got to the bird laid out on her back and touched her feet to pick her up, I realized she was very much alive. I picked her up, holding her gently, not knowing how badly she might be hurt. I tried enticing the other two to follow me with the dog treats in my pocket. Dogs. The dogs had hung around, probably more fascinated with the chicken frenzy than loyal to me. Dogs go inside; injured chicken goes in a box for the moment, with water and food. I didn't find the neck injury I'd assumed she had, but she was missing some feathers, including a bare spot on her neck.

Back outside I had more success getting the other two out of the pen. I walked around counting. Eventually I located all 13 red hens, both roosters, the Speckled Sussex and 3 Favarolles. One Favarolle and 2 Barred Rocks missing. The Barred Rocks are older girls. They know how to hide. I wasn't worried about them, but assumed the missing bird was one of the smaller, meeker, younger Favarolles. I prepped the "chicken infirmary", a small wire pen we keep on the closed-in side porch for sick or injured birds that need to be isolated. Plastic liner in place, a layer of wheat straw with bowls of food and water, and she has a place to stay for a day or two. I examined her again and still found no real injuries other than missing feathers. Joan reminded me that passing out is a fear response in chickens, though not really a survival skill.

I went back outside and walked around the pen and along the road on the other side of the pen, not finding the trail of feathers I expected. So many feathers in a large area with no carcass could only be a larger animal, i.e. not a hawk, like a dog. This is worrisome because a dog that is able to feed itself well on one bird will be back for more. But then, heading back to the house, I discovered all 4 Favarolles casually scratching around together like nothing had happened. Both Barred Rocks showed up as well. There were no missing chickens. So my poor little red hen must have lost more feathers than I realized. I still don't know what happened to her.

To celebrate all birds still alive, I dumped a bunch of veggie and fruit scraps out for them.
Happy birds, happy farmer.