Friday, December 30, 2011

To Celebrate

The parties are winding down. Living in the same community where we were born means we’re surrounded by family. Christmas time means juggling lots of subsets of immediate and extended family. It can get complicated.

Some relatives like the parties and always attend and contribute to the festivities. Some don’t. And we can fuss and fret over how to include them, how to make them feel comfortable, how to do it different next year so they'll stay longer. Or we can decide, as I have, that all we can do is create the opportunity. Bake the ham, make the phone calls, give them a warm welcome and leave the rest to them. Hopefully one day they’ll show up and make a connection with a cousin they haven’t seen in years. They might set for a while with grandpa and leave with that wonderful feeling of connectedness that stays with them long into January.  

Besides the parties, we had some great times alone with just the kids. On Christmas evening we watched old home videos. Anna and Seth swing dancing at two and four years old. Mark schooling Callie on Cash in preparation for the 4-H fair. Anna practicing Amelia Bedelia for drama class. We laughed til we cried at the kids, with tights on their heads, dancing on our bed to Birddog by the Tokens. We enjoyed again, watching Seth on the guitar begrudgingly accompanying Anna on the fiddle, and she and I doing piano duets. We relived Callie's winning solo as a senior and her volleyball finesse. Oh what memories.  

With all the togetherness time, the gift giving, parties, traveling and food preparation, there’s plenty of room for screw-ups and hurt feelings. But we forgive and concentrate on moments. We bake pies and light candles. We sweep the walk, hang wreaths, gather up pinochle decks and word games, mash the spuds, and celebrate the season with whoever graces our front door.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

An Idaho Christmas Card

It's great to have the kids home. Callie took photos while she was here. She always sees the ranch in her own unique way and it's fun to see it from her vantage.

On the white board in the kitchen she wrote: We must learn to look before we can expect to see.
Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Wreath Primer

It’s just not Christmas until I get the wreath made for the front door. I finally got one fashioned last night and hung it up after dark.

Each year I marvel at the beauty, variety and versatility of evergreen cuttings. I cut some smoky blue cedar from the windbreak, with plenty of berries attached. The bottom of the Christmas tree lent bright green fir bows. I trimmed the arborvitae in Mom’s yard, whose cuttings look straight from the florist shop, deep green and supple. I also cut a few sprigs of long needle pine for contrast.    

I've heard there's lots of crafty blogs out there. So not to be outdone!

A spool of wire from a craft store, a glue gun, and small hand held pruners are the only tools needed. I start with a vine base. I wind my own from wild clematis that grows along the fence lines, but store bought vine, wire, or straw bases work well too. Protect your working area with an old vinyl tablecloth. Bundle 3-4 evergreen cuttings, varying in length maybe 5-8 inches long, and lay them on the base. When you have anchored the wire to the base, wrap it and the ends of the cuttings snugly together. Keep laying bunches on top of each other, covering up the cut ends as you go, and wrapping with wire. Be generous with materials so the wreath is full. When you’ve completed the circle, fill in any holes with extra cuttings stuck in with a dollop of hot glue.  

Add a fabric bow. I like to use the 2.5" wide ribbon that comes on cardboard spools in 3 yard lengths. You can find them in the seasonal section of many stores. It will take all three yards for one bow. Make a loop with the ribbon and twist it at the base, pinching it between the thumb and forefinger of one hand. Make six loops, twisting each time, and finish with one just a little smaller for the center of the bow. Trim the ends on an angle and leave tails on the wire to anchor to the base.  

Use hot glue to attach anything else you want to add. I always add a nest, pinecones and other odds and ends. One year it was pheasant feathers, this year it’s tansy seed heads and store bought berries. 

My mom always made a wreath at Christmastime. Her base was a fir tree branch bent in a circle. Her wire was salvaged from a spent window screen. It's a family tradition I'm happy to keep alive. And there’s nothing to compare with the beauty of nature for decorating our homes.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Not Just About Cows

My years as a member of the Sage Grouse Statewide Advisory Committee (SAC) have been hugely insightful. Our meeting this week was one of the best.

David Skinner, a falconer and member of the North Magic Valley Local Working Group, brought his falcon for show and tell. David, who wears a pony tail and Dansko clogs, doesn’t fit my stereotype of a hunter. He looks the part of an ultra-greenie who wouldn't hurt a fly. David began his love affair with falcons as a teenager. He says this is common, as the sport is too all-consuming to imagine picking it up as an adult. He showed us slides of hunting on the Camas Prairie. He calls it sage grouse “hawking,” and he’s passionate about his sport, taking Gabriel out every other day to fly, which is after all what birds do.

Some discussions on the SAC have suggested that falconers have too long of a hunting season and take too many birds (some members believe that hunting should be banned altogether). In fact, of the 20 or so falconry hunters in Idaho this year, only an estimated 58 birds were harvested. For me, I appreciate their penchant for wildlife and their determination to work for sage grouse conservation. I want David and other sportsmen at the table with me, wrangling together on how to save our birds.

We also had a hands-on activity learning to “read” sage grouse wings. Wings are collected at check points during hunting season, aged and sexed, and the data compared to figures collected since the 1940’s. It was common back then to have 3-4 juveniles for every hen. This year, 2011, it was a paltry 1.1 chicks per hen. No matter the numbers of birds, this ratio is significant. Those of us in the cattle business understand reproductive efficiency all too well. I have to agree with the biologist who used the word “alarming” to describe the results.

We listened to presentations concerning habitat maps, the BLM’s priority areas, and good research on predation and the explosion of the raven population.

But more than anything tangible that happens at these meetings, I appreciate the personalities and the diverse viewpoints represented on the SAC. Brett from Idaho Power, Rich from the Idaho Conservation League, Rochelle from the Wool Growers, Dean from Fish and Game, they all add their energy and unique insight to the discussion. I thank them for educating me.

Mark is super supportive of my other involvements and knows that to stay in business, we need to venture out into the larger arena. Making sure ranching interests are represented in conservation discussions is critical, even if my own continuing education is my ulterior motive.

While I was in meetings, Mark and a good crew started the herd home from the mountains. We gave them their annual vaccinations yesterday and walked them to pasture today. It’s good to have them home.
back to civilization

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Saying Grace

November and her unadulterated holiday, Thanksgiving, suit me perfectly. I relish November’s subdued landscape. Like the restricted palette of a novice painter, we concentrate on value rather than color. The leafless trees are now only smudges of violet and pewter. The hills in the distance are an opaque blue topped with snow. On the rare sunny day, we stand like cattle, broadside to catch the sun as it hangs in the south sky, steeling ourselves for winter.

Today was a good November day. Good for spreading manure on the garden and winding up the remaining hoses.  Also good for vaccinating the leftover calves and riding a good horse in the wind. It generally blows in November, cold and clean, and today was no exception.

Thanksgiving is still wholesome in an unwholesome world. I cringed when I saw the huge inflatable turkey on someone’s lawn. There’s no room for plastic d├ęcor on Thanksgiving. For me, I hang up the construction paper pilgrims Anna made in kindergarten, place the ceramic turkey on the autumn table runner, and call it good. I buy extra sour cream and cream cheese and a spice scented candle and leave the nonsense for Christmas.

Thanksgiving is, should be, simple. A time for setting down with family, giving thanks, and reflecting on the good things in life. We’ll spend the holiday with Aunt Mona, eating too much, playing word games, and driving home too late, reluctant to leave the leftover turkey and one more sliver of pecan pie. We’ll have grandma’s traditional carrot pudding, heavy on the sauce. We’ll put cheese with vegetables and gravy with potatoes and feel darn good about it!

And we’ll recite the Pratt prayer said at every Thanksgiving since I’ve been in the family:
Give us grateful hearts our Father for all thy blessings, and make us mindful of the needs of others. 

Seth and Anna
Cassie, Gent, Jane, Clyde

Friday, November 18, 2011

Snow Herding

The snow got deep enough, or rather the wind got deep enough, that we had to bring the cows part way down from the mountains. Even with the county snow plows running we had to chain up all four tires to get out.

We were able to get the horse trailer to the herd, but then needed to take an alternate route trailing home, so we left the trailer and ventured forth with the pickup and three horses. We got the herd gathered and put them on the road in a bone-numbing wind. Coveralls and headgear, covered with a slicker to cut the wind, were the only reason we made it. Still we were thoroughly chilled by the time we made it to the overnight field.

Mark and I stayed in a cabin close by, actually a warming hut on our grazing co-op’s land, built and maintained by the Sno-Riders, a local snowmachining group. It's a great example of multiple use, we use it during the grazing season, they use it during the winter.

Someone said something about a romantic interlude, well . . . not exactly. We arrived late in the evening, got a fire going in the woodstove, and had hot soup Mark’s mom had sent. The cabin is clean except for dead flies all over the carpet; oh for a vacuum! It got dark soon, so we kept our boot liners on and tried to ignore them. Then as the cabin got warm, more flies came to life and started falling out of the window seal. Between the drone of flies hitting the windows, the whine of the wind through the stove, having to stoke the fire and then being cooked to death when it got going, it was a long night. We got up once and killed a few hundred flies, but they just kept coming so we went back to bed.  

The next day dawned perfect. Homemade breakfast burritos in tin foil and warmed over coffee, sunshine, a brilliant royal blue sky - and no wind! Mark rode lead and I brought up the tail end on Anna, our grey mare, but Kate did most of the work flying through snow drifts keeping the cows going. Our ride took us through stands of quakies, a monochromatic world of black and white trunks making shadows on the snow - and miles of sagebrush. Moving dry cows (no more calves) is always a pleasure. We were warm and it was dead quiet, just the rustle of hooves through the snow.

The cows made it to Brush Creek in good time. Hopefully we can stay until Thanksgiving, but more snow is in the forecast so they may be on our doorstep before the holiday. 

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Lessons on Handling

Bud Williams teaches ranchers to take responsibility for how cattle behave during handling. “Were they doing it before you got there?” he likes to ask. It’s pleasant to take credit when they behave well. It's not so nice to think it’s your fault when things fall apart.

Bud has spent his lifetime handling cattle, dogs, even reindeer and elk, and makes great effort to share what he’s learned with ranchers.  Integral to his training is using your position, rather than fear or force to achieve the desired movement from the animals.  Pressuring from the side instead of from behind, working with the animal’s natural instincts, and using release from pressure to train animals are all hallmarks of Bud’s teachings.

We had plenty of opportunity to hone our handling skills this week while processing calves and the yearling heifers. The heifers are checked to make sure they’re pregnant and given vaccine and a parasiticide. They’ll spend early winter on the Fort Hall Bottoms along Ross Fork, a warm creek that provides open water for drinking all winter. It’s a beautiful spot, wild and secluded. The landlord is retired but we used his well designed working facility to treat the heifers. On a dry hill surrounded by cedars, the corrals are spare but functional, and have features I like even better than ours at home. Using a flag I could load the heifers from the holding pen into the chute from outside the pen – slick! I told Mark even an old woman could do this. And I plan on being that old woman someday. 

Mark, Gary and Jesse are a joy to work with. They’re cut of the same cloth, patient and methodical. Their quiet conversation and fluid movements keep the cattle calm. Back and forth, one after another, the cattle wait their turn, moving into the empty spot ahead of them with little angst.

After the heifers, it took two days to vaccinate and weigh the calves. We finished up just as the November full moon was rising.

Now it’s snowing and blowing, and though we feel good the youngsters are tended, we’re concerned about the mature cows still at 6,000+ foot elevation. We hope Mother Nature is gentle with us. 

 a good design makes it easy

waiting her turn

Friday, November 4, 2011

Weaning on a Wire

Someone said, “The last of the old is always better than the first of the new.” I think they were talking about weaning calves on a wire instead of in a corral.

We have always separated the cows and calves and immediately trucked the calves home to stay in the corral until they are completely weaned. Trouble is, they walk around and around the pens, bawling. They not only miss mom, they have to change from range life to eating hay out of a manger and drinking from a trough, often in dusty conditions. It works okay, but we always want to do better. It’s stressful to the calves and the owners alike. 

This is our second year weaning on a wire, which means you put the cows on one side of an electric fence and the calves on the other. They're free to almost touch noses and communicate with each other, but no nursing allowed. In five days the calves are ready to go home to be turned out on green pastures.

Unfortunately, we can’t request the cows just walk away from their calves. It’s not like parent orientation at Boise State University, “Say your goodbyes - students go right and parents go left!” Instead, we flow the herd towards a gate, letting the cows outside and turning the calves back into the mob. Cows naturally like to change fields, so the flow usually goes well for the most part.

This year we got about two-thirds of the cows out and then they started balking at the gate, thinking there was electricity flowing through the gap. We foolishly kept trying to force them into it, and then finally fell back to a gate in the corner. When that didn’t work we went to plan “C,” putting the rest of the herd into an already grazed field and letting the cows back through in one direction and the calves another. Finally, with tired cowboys, and tired horses, we re-rode the cows, gathering up the calves that had gotten past us, then headed for the ridge top where the horsetrailers waited.

Weaning on a wire requires good fresh feed on both sides of the fence, an easy drink on the calf side, and a solid hot fence. Even though our cattle are trained to electric fences, there were a dozen calves that crawled through.

We checked the herd daily, and were relieved to see the calves spread out on the meadow, the creek close by. They continued to be bright and healthy. Yes, they still walked and bawled, but mom was not far away and they stayed full on good feed.

On day five we trailed the calves up over two ridges and into the trucking corrals. They filed on the trucks quickly; only one truck had to be unloaded at home after dark.

I took Grandma Bonnie to see the calves yesterday. She doesn’t drive anymore and I knew she would love to see the calf crop. They looked happy, sunning themselves in the afternoon light, chewing their cuds. After a challenging week, seeing them content is a satisfying feeling – a year’s work in review.

quiet again

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

An FFA Opportunity

We just returned from a week-long getaway to Indianapolis, Indiana, to attend the National FFA Convention. At the culmination of the event the new officers were announced. Seth was named Western Region Vice President! It’s a huge honor and commitment, giving a year of service to the FFA and agriculture advocacy across the nation. He is one of six officers, the others hailing from New Mexico, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and Georgia.

With over 500,000 FFA members, Seth’s most important job will be as a role model to high school kids, giving leadership seminars and urging them to think big and believe in themselves. He'll also meet with agriculture industry folks, being the “spirit and face” of FFA. 

Callie flew in from Manhattan, and Anna flew in from Boise as part of her state FFA officer team. I had to pinch myself to realize it all came together. We stayed downtown at convention central, so were available early or late, whenever our busy kids had a spare moment. One evening was pure magic as we sat over dinner listening to Seth recount his recent trip to Brazil. He had waited to tell us about it until we were all together. Another afternoon we gathered in Seth’s hotel room and heard about Callie’s latest dance performance, rich in detail and vulnerability. Another night we walked the streets after dark, ducking into a chocolate/coffee shop for more deep conversation. We so enjoy our kids.

It’s a great experience to walk the streets of downtown Indy during FFA convention. In their trademark blue corduroy jackets, they crowd every hotel lobby, mob the mall, and line the skywalks to and from each convention venue, all 50,000 of them! The kids like to call “heyyyyyyyyyyyyyy” to each other as they pass in the escalators and hallways. Even from our 3rd floor hotel room we could hear waves of greeting as they crossed the street below.

The waitress at the local burger joint “Steak n Shake,” and the manager of our hotel, both enthusiastically praised the impressive kids that descend on the city in October of each year. To be excited about youth, now that’s noteworthy!

We stayed an extra day to be part of parent orientation. After breakfast with the officer team, Seth was whisked away by FFA staff. Then Anna left to catch her flight back to Boise. That left Callie and Mark and I. We walked around the now deserted city, no more blue jackets and excited faces, then took a bus across town to see more of Indy. Callie found us a great bookstore with $2.00 used books, perfect for reading on the airplane. They also had magazines for 50 cents. We bought one called Ode - for Intelligent Optimists. After a week of being with the most optimistic youth (or adult) organization in the world, it was very fitting. Mark read it all the way home. 

Anna, Seth, and friend Casey

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Retreat with the Sheep

Anne Morrow Lindbergh, in her 1955 book, Gift from the Sea, retreats to the beach for two weeks, living simply, in a shore cottage with open-air windows and bare walls, to write and contemplate her busy life as a wife and mother. Since I first read the book (and my grandma's notes in the margin), I have romanticized the notion of taking off by myself. To find out if I was any fun to be with. To look at hours ahead and know there was only me to fill them. To write, to read. When I turned 50 two years ago, and then when our last kid left home in August, it became uppermost in my mind. I finally made it happen last week when I headed to Idaho's famous Sun Valley resort community to the Trailing of the Sheep festival.

On the first day I attended a writer’s workshop, Women Writing and Living the West. I got to meet some of my favorite women authors, and heard stories from ranch women just like me who are brave enough to stand in a crowd and share those stories.

I went hiking/walking all three days, once into the Sawtooths under perfect skies. One morning my hike was in the forest adjacent to the city, so close in fact, that within in a minute or two of returning, I ordered a perfect mocha at the local coffee house. How “Sun Valleyesque” is that? 

On Sunday the culminating event is the parade, where thousands of onlookers line the short main street in Ketchum to witness the ancient art of herding sheep. First are dancers and musicians representing Peru and the Basque region of Spain, whose sheep raising cultures spawned the local industry. Next are a couple of horse-drawn sheep wagons. Then a dull roar rises from the crowd, and folks step into the street, craning their necks as the sheep come into view. The 1500 head flood by, the local priest at their lead, striding out in his black cloak.

From the perspective of a rangeland cattle rancher who appreciates the efforts of the solitary herder and his band of sheep in the mountains, this is genius. My hat is off to the sheep industry and the ranchers who had the foresight to turn conflict, sheep trailing to lower elevation pastures through a trophy home community, into a celebration!

As for my personal retreat, there were no great insights; Mark recognized me when I got home. I am emboldened enough to believe I can keep carving on my life through daily practice. I do feel a bit of "grace," as Lindbergh would say, that life is precious - even and especially when experienced alone.

 A day hike

stars of the parade

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Fencing at Brush Creek

I fired up the wood stove tonight to warm up from a damp day of fencing in the hills.  

The neighbor’s cows had discovered a weak spot in our fence, so we took up the 4-wheeler, a roll of barbed wire, staples, bulldogs (fencing pliers), a shovel and tamping bar, and some extra posts to repair the fence in the Brush Creek field.

Kate and I went around the strays and headed them out the gate while Mark started replacing posts.

Fencing is satisfying work. Start with quality materials, dig the post holes deep and tamp them solid at the bottom. The last step, attaching wire to the posts with u-shaped staples, requires restraint. Only the novice buries the staple into the wood. Experience teaches one to leave a small air gap so that the wire can be snugged up later, as time and snow sag the once-tight line. When a fence is complete and well maintained, it's a source of pride to a rancher.

It reminds me of when Grandma Bonnie talks of being proud of her whites hanging on the clothesline. Her tools are timeless - bleach and sunshine - and the results are kitchen drawers lined with snow white tablecloths and dishtowels. I have always envied them.  

October is fine fencing weather. We ranchers have the hills to ourselves post-camping season and pre-hunting season. The grasses are a soft buttery yellow, heavy with seedheads. The quakies are golden, the sagebrush is in bloom, and all seems quiet, patiently awaiting the change of season. It is so beautiful as to break your heart.  

We stopped for a lunch of chicken salad sandwiches and pumpkin bread - with coffee of course. It was breezy, so we found a sidehill with giant sagebrush to block the wind.

I told Mark there was much to blog about on this day. I could talk about fencing and how technology hasn't changed the world of ranching very much in the last 50 years. Barbed wire and cedar posts still fit the bill. Or, I could blog about end-of-season plants, and how the leaves of the river birch dot the beaver ponds with color.  Or how a cow’s layer of fat acquired over the summer helps her ward off winter storms. I might talk about husbands and wives working together or how setting posts is like raising children, get a good start and the rest follows.

Blogging for the past year has been a real joy. It helps me to sift the lovely vignette out of the common every day, and with that done, I have renewed tolerance and gratitude for this life we lead.         


Saturday, October 1, 2011

Denver and Back

We flew a quick trip to Denver this week. Mark is out of flying practice and forgot to leave his pocket knife in the car before going through security! It reminded us of the LA Laker game we attended in 2010 where, spying the security in place at the door, Mark stashed his knife in a potted plant at the stadium. Yes, it was still there after the game. I ask you, what good is a man without a pocket knife? My Dad always carried one and it’s very handy, from opening Christmas packages, to cutting baling twine, to scraping dried manure from your jeans. 

We visited a few Whole Foods stores in Denver that sell our co-op's meat. One meat cutter took us behind the counter and sliced fresh samples of roast he had just taken out of the smoker. Oh, perfection!  It’s always fun to see our beef lined up in the meat case, ready for families to take home and make a terrific meal. 

We also visited a lot in Sterling where we have yearlings on feed. The cattle were doing well and looked content. The owner drove us around the lot. A curious feature were the dozens of bison on feed. They looked as docile as any hereford.

We returned to perfect weather. Anna and I helped Mark load a two-ton truck with firewood this afternoon. Mark tossed the split silver leaf maple on the bed and Anna and I stacked. They bantered back and forth, Anna telling college tales. With all of Mark’s other work, I have to wonder why he takes on more, but the resource is there, and harvesting and selling is in his nature. Our efforts didn't make much of a dent in the large pile constructed last winter.

As Anna and Mark finished the load, I walked through the woods sidestepping Mark’s irrigation water. A few leaves are starting to turn and I fancy these trees as regal as any in a New England hardwood forest. For the old timers and the un-fit, keeping families warm is a dignified end.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

September Serenade

The spud trucks are rolling again. Our ranch is in the middle of potato country so we drive defensively this time of year. We reverently bow to the potato producers in southeast Idaho, where Spud Harvest deserves top ranking.   

Last night at sunset I let the dogs loose for their evening run. It was so lovely and mild - and no mosquitoes – that I stayed out until after dark. The dogs cavorted in the cool. A massive, brightly-lit spud digger lumbered by the house and into the darkness, ready to start a new field tomorrow. 

And then this morning I heard meadowlarks! Thinking this a springtime sound, I asked my 92-yr-old father about it. He said they sing in the spring and again in the fall. Maybe it’s just that most of the loudmouths have left town and so we notice them again, or maybe they’re calling the ranks together for winter.

Dad and I remembered a poem my grandma wrote that begins with, “I woke to find September at my door.” She also mentions meadowlarks:

His song was not the mating song of spring,
He had a softer, more contented note;
He spoke to me of every finished thing,
Yet joy of life just billowed from his throat.

Such an apt description of September. Not unlike a woman in her fifties, September has left behind the fickleness of spring and the bruising heat of summer. We’ve both matured. We’ve settled and feel a contentment borne of hard-fought wins. We speak our minds with clarity. Our thickened leaves lined with gold, we march on unafraid of the future.

September is not shy. And like her, we are secure in our beauty, confident in our timeline of experience which only increases our capacity to love, and to embrace this full-up stage of life.     

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Mourn with Me

September marks one year since my mother’s death. There is no prettier month, none more poignant, than September, when the plants begin to shut down and prepare for winter. The irrigated fields are a deep lustrous green, but all is edged in gold as the grasses cure off, the goldenrod, rabbit brush, and sunflowers bloom. September is a month of mourning summer’s passing, and now it mourns for my mother as well. 
After Mom died we found a photo of my folks as young lovers. There is such joy in their faces. Dad, with his signature tilt to his cowboy hat, wraps his arms around Mom; she leans into his chest, her dark hair brushing his face. He has a flower in the buttonhole on his shirt, obviously stationed there by my mother. They look so young!

As they raised a family, Dad wasn’t very demonstrative towards Mom. Though we kids got regular hugs from him, she had to make a pest of herself to get any affection. She would discreetly grab him in the kitchen as we were watching TV around the corner. He would grimace and pretend he didn’t like it. But, oh the love they shared. 

Even late in life when Mom was failing, often confused and disoriented, she would say how lucky she was, and how Dad was the perfect man. In turn, Dad has conveniently forgotten there was anything wrong with Mom. He remembers her as perfect, which was how they treated each other their whole married lives.  

When I was a child I slept across the hallway from my parents. I remember their quiet murmuring in the darkness and the loud smack of their goodnight kiss. Never doubting the love of your parents for one another is a gift to children, one we took for granted of course. Never witnessing an argument or having to endure criticism from one to the other was a great comfort and joy.

Every day I practice the lessons Mom taught me (key word, practice, meaning I’m still working at it). Finish any job you start and do your best. Keep your word. Do what you love. But the most important lesson was to love your spouse – love being a verb. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

"modern" agriculture

We had a lovely evening at a “farm fresh feast” to kick off the state fair here in our hometown. Our county recently added a community garden, which was the impetus for an outdoor “high-end restaurant” dining experience using local products. We provided the grass finished beef; other dishes were free-range chicken, fingerling potatoes, tomato-basil soup in a bread bowl, corn on the cob, salad greens and berry cheese cake.  Idaho wine and sarsaparilla made with local honey rounded out the meal.

It was a real treat to sit together there on the lawn in the middle of the race track, the same venue of our kids’ careers in horse 4-H, at a white linen covered table, sipping wine and honoring our local food producers of which we were one!  Mark even took his turn at the mic, describing our 5-generation ranch and the passion we share for putting grass and cows together.

Now, I know that locally produced food does nothing to address world hunger. Especially if you add attributes like grass-finished and/or organic, which this meal did. But how do you place a value on shaking hands with the farmer that grew your meal? What does it mean to come together, farmers and eaters, and finish the circle of creation and consumption of our most vital need? And what I’m more comfortable with every day, is the “choice” factor. We agriculturalists can provide food for consumers no matter their preference, be it industrially produced soybeans, or a dozen eggs straight from the farm.

One day this summer while Seth and I were driving by a neighboring grain field, we stopped so he could take me into the field and show me the large heads of grain and the stems packed tightly together. “Look what modern agriculture has done, Mom.” It was amazing; much more productive than the wheat fields I moved pipe through as a kid. And no, this wheat won’t be consumed in our county, maybe not in our nation.

When Seth talks about feeding the world, I always think, if you feed people, don’t they just have more kids, thereby exacerbating the hunger problem? It sounds harsh, but how do we fix it long run? His answer surprised me. He said that it’s only through nutrition that women become educated and empowered. And only through empowered women does family planning stand a chance of success. He taught me that it’s only when roads and food finally reach a people that despotism moves out. What a grand objective – improve the lives of all people, end tyranny, end hunger, and then population stabilizes.

Seth says it’s an exciting time to be in agriculture. Indeed. 

milkweeds along the yard
it's all about propagation

Friday, September 2, 2011

Salting the Range

After suffering through a week of over 90 degree temps, it has dipped into the 70’s now. Glorious September! The second cutting of hay looks good and we’re having beets and green beans from the garden.  

Mark and I took salt to the cows on Sunday. We have a set routine that doesn't vary. We put 6 or 7 fifty pound blocks on a 4-wheeler, strap them with tie-downs and travel to areas where we want to attract cows. We break the blocks into 8 pieces with a small sledge and throw them into the densest brush we can find, of which we have plenty. The cows stomp around, licking the pieces which are gone in a few days, not damaging the soil, but leaving an open spot in the brush and a bit of “edge” for wildlife. 

It’s a great way to look over the range and check cattle for health issues. Mark has a real connection with the cattle and recognizes each one. As we work through the herd, he points out pairs that we helped in one way or another this spring - the twin that wasn’t sucking, the cow that was confused and claimed the wrong calf, and the calves he treated for illness. We see Tim, the premature orphaned calf that we fed on a bottle for a few weeks until he got a new mom.  He’s big and strong now and we wonder if he remembers us. We figure after branding and trailing to the hills, he has long forgotten our care. We turn off the 4-wheeler and Mark approaches him slowly. Sure enough, he lets Mark scratch him, enjoying it immensely as his mother hums to him nearby.  

It was a nice diversion which ended badly when the 4-wheeler wouldn’t start and we had to walk back to our pickup in the rain. But the clouds were kind to us and only got us damp, not soaked.

If Mark feels a particular kinship with the cattle, I am compelled by the land. I make him stop to get a photo of crimson annual paintbrush, point out violet asters, and pick a sprig of mint for him to smell. Of course we cross-over in our loyalties as well, both wanting the “whole” to flourish. If we can keep the lines of communication open and not get defensive, this complementary allegiance works to the benefit of all.

When we returned a few days later to get the 4-wheeler, it still wouldn’t start. We had ridden double on our faithful sorrel horse, Sly, down to the creek where the machine waited. I got on to steer while Mark tied his lariat on the frame of the 4-wheeler and dallied to his saddle horn. Then Sly drug us back to the trailer for loading. Sly is a good sport and acted like dragging 4-wheelers was an everyday chore. I think that’s where the term “horsepower” comes from.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Anna, our youngest, started college this week. I’ve been trying to downplay her leaving, and it worked for the most part. No long drawn-out tearful goodbyes, just a good positive send off. I think she needed that as much as I did. 

So I'm moping around a bit, trying to pamper myself as I get used to the idea of her being gone. I got groceries this week and what a weird feeling that was. Just the two of us to shop for now.

Change is hard. I don’t like change, never have. Part of the reason I write and take photos is to stop time. I can’t imagine raising a family without a journal and camera in tow. Someone once said that we lose our children, finally, to the adults they become. And though I wouldn’t trade this age, this season, for anything in the past, it is still hard.

I guess Mark and I will see how couple-living works. Thank goodness we like each other. Mark is a great father, but today is not much different than yesterday for him. He isn’t defined by his role as a father, like I am defined by my role as a mother. 

I’ll be okay in a bit. I have other passions and work to do, but I’m taking some time to just . . . mourn, embrace . . . maybe the word is “experience,” this feeling of loss.

I wrote an essay once about a robin that was building a nest out my office window, fussing and fretting as she prepared for the momentous task of mothering. I felt her pain. One line of my essay read: motherhood fills you up to overflowing, until you spill over and stain the floor with love, and hope, and worry.  Seems I’ve been wiping up for over twenty-five years. Now it’s time to move on and I’m not liking it. 

Finding beauty

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bringing the Boys Home

August marches on. There's a snap in the morning air that says Fall is coming.

This month’s full moon is called the sturgeon moon; seems the large bottom-dwelling fish were traditionally caught in August. It has also been called the red moon, as August skies are often hazy, causing a change in hue. Last night there was smoke in the air, and the moon, a day past full, was a hauntingly rose color. 

All the plant life is taking in the sun’s energy with a vengeance, in anticipation of shorter days and long cold nights. The race is on to set seed and lay down roots. Zinnias troop across the garden. The kingbirds have quieted just a little from their summer racket-making at 4:30 a.m. The currants and chokecherries are bending branches in the mountains. Those in our yard are waning fast from the robins and a few cedar waxwings. 

Mid-August also means pulling the bulls from the herd. They only work about three months a year and just get into trouble if left with the cows. We had a good day sorting them out and hauling them home. Putting them in a bunch again reminded them how much they dislike each other. I’m always warning my kids and any extra help to stay clear of their head-butting, as their mass and speed can overwhelm a horse and rider in a flash. It’s an exciting event to get them separated, usually needing a little more aggression than normal cow work. It was good practice for the young horses, Jane and Gent, that Mark and Seth rode.

Since they got home and away from the girls, the bulls have settled down. Gary usually says at this time of year, “now if we could just let the air out of them and put them on a shelf til spring!” That comment always inspires a vision in my mind, of popping a button just behind their shoulder, watching them shrivel, then piling them in the back of the barn. But no, they need to eat and drink everyday - and will be, for the most part, docile and congenial to their mates once again. 

All photos by Anita Pratt

stalling by the Sno Riders cabin 

Mater and Sly at work

not convinced

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Berries etc.

It’s berry season. I helped my uncle Doug pick from his raspberry patch this week. He stayed on the perimeter, but I waded into the jungle of canes, over my head, to pull in cluster after cluster of huge, ripe berries.  Much to our chagrin, they were so ripe that a few fell to the ground when we disturbed their perch.

Doug’s garden is large, unruly, unkempt, disorderly, chaotic . . . and wonderful. He recently cut down the huge cottonwoods that dwarfed the humble home at the back of the city lot. I was sad about that, but now sunshine fills the space and the banana-yellow evening primroses love it. Their blooms shriveled and fell as we worked, after their one-night-stand in the moonlight.

Nearby is a stand of quakies that Doug has allowed to sucker outward until it resembles a natural grove. Hollyhocks bloom in chorus. And everywhere, gloriosa daisies, tall and gangly, held upright by their neighbors, beam with nary a care to be goggled at by human eyes. Doug carefully cut a huge bouquet of sweet peas for me - pink, purple, blue, and candy-cane striped red and white – oh their heavenly scent!

He can’t bend his knees very good, or stoop for that matter, but he manages to wrangle his garden into a wonderland each year. His long gray hair wisps across his face as he works.

He sent me home with nearly all the berries we picked that morning. Mark and the kids gorged on them; I froze two plump bags and made jam with the rest.  

The plants that live in Doug’s yard seem to grow bigger and bolder than the same species in other yards. Maybe all the flora over the years, left to express themselves with little interference from human hands, has lead to more fertile soil. Maybe the lack of definition creates living things that live more abundantly.

I’m always finding lessons from the natural world. Today it is to back off and let some things figure themselves out. Back off – and watch my children, my endeavors, my relationships flourish. 

quakies galore

good for picking

daisies and primroses in shades of yellow

the sitting room

sweet peas - plenty for a bouquet!


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Taking the Carbon Challenge

I was tickled to find two monarch butterfly caterpillars this week while walking one of our pastures. They were very common when I was a kid, but I haven't seen one for years. 

I celebrated my birthday by helping set up a carbon monitoring plot on our land. Well, actually, I just watched and asked questions. We met Peter Donovan some years ago when we were both interested in animal handling to achieve time-controlled grazing. He's taking his "carbon challenge" on the road in a refurbished school bus to test soils and talk with landowners/managers about managing for increased carbon uptake. 

We took Peter by the same pasture where I spotted the caterpillars. We walked through the standing biomass and decided this pasture was "harvesting" carbon at a good rate.

We went on to a pasture that wasn't in such good shape, one we can hopefully, through improved management, show increased carbon in the soil when Peter returns in three years.

Photosynthesis takes carbon from the air and transfers it to plants, and from there into the soil. When a stand of grass is not allowed to express itself because of over-grazing, or conversely when plants are over mature from a lack of grazing and are no longer in a green and growing state, the sequestration of carbon into the soil is hindered. This promotion of photosynthesis not only addresses heavy carbon dioxide loads in the atmosphere, but means vital soils as well.

No matter where you stand on climate change - the seriousness of, the cause of, the cure for - I think we can all agree that healthy stabile soils are essential for the planet.

Happy trails, Peter. 

soil samples to test carbon