Sunday, May 29, 2011

In Pursuit of Asparagus

The rain is falling as I write. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, every shade of green you can imagine. And while we love the wet, we sympathize with our neighbors that border the flooding Snake River. 

Wild asparagus season is here and it’s every man for himself! If there is solace to living in the sandhills, it is firm ground in the rainy season – and asparagus. Everywhere pickers scour the roadsides, but I am immune to their depredations, for I have my own treasure trove of the vegetable, the North Forty. 

Just to the north of us, separated by a neighboring farm, lies forty acres of not much. Not much, that is, to the casual observer. It’s just a humble patch of dry sandhills along a paved road. It harbors willows, elms, weedy patches, and the occasional duck nest along the canal that splits the property. It's home for the laid-off bulls in the fall and shelters some cow/calf pairs in the spring. But it is beautiful in detail, especially the spears of asparagus that pop up when the cows leave (for cows enjoy them too). And so I visit every third or fourth day for a couple of weeks, serious in my task to keep the plants from going to seed and ceasing production. And while I narrow my gaze in the hunt, so I develop a relationship with this ground.  

Dwarfing the younger trees is a grand old cottonwood. A few limbs show life, but mostly it is dead and white like bones. One spring my friend John and I were feeding cows and saw a troop of vultures, wings spread, sunning themselves on the branches. Nearby are a few hardy apple trees, vestiges of a long forgotten homestead. Today they're in full bloom and full of bees, the blossoms milky white and veined with pink. Who planted these trees and tasted this same fragrance? Who dug this poor ditch, long abandoned?

We don’t know that answer, but we do know that great grandpa traded a fine team of horses for the North Forty three generations ago. It was a grazing retreat for a few milk cows, and Eldro, Mark’s granddad, told us how he would fetch the cows back and forth each day for milking. The land would bring a fine sum if subdivided today, but it won’t happen if I have any say in the matter. I like it the way it is.

I’ve tried many different ways to prepare asparagus. We like them stir fried over rice, in breakfast omelets, sautéed with garlic, and they’re pretty darn good eaten raw. But my favorite remains simply to boil lightly, add butter and salt and pepper, and enjoy.  A banquet graced by God and fit for a king. 

 my quarry

the grand-pappy of them all

the North Forty

an old-timer in bloom

And from my respite from the rain album for today:

at our front entry-way

my all-time favorite - quakies

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Lure of the Natives

We’ve been madly processing and shipping yearlings, putting bulls out, and yes, still feeding cows. This cold wet spring has really made the grass, and in turn the ranchers, play catch up. About half of the herd are feeding themselves on pastures close by, but the big move will happen at the end of the week when we head for our summer range, some 2000 feet higher in elevation and 45 miles away from here. 

Jesse and Armando, our hard working employees, have been burning ditch and digging head gates to start flood irrigating. They were really late one evening and we couldn’t get them on either cell phone. I was sure they had succumbed to a propane explosion, but they drove in the yard just before dark. Jesse said they went back to make sure their fire was out and decided to do one more stretch of ditch. “You know how it is,” he said. They got the first stream of water started yesterday while we branded another set of calves. I was glad Jesse made it back in time to put his own brand on his calves. 

I transplanted more sagebrush to the yard last week. This would puzzle some people because the plants grow wild in abundance around here and are still aggressively eliminated on any developed site. I, on the other hand, think them beautiful plants and like the natural look they lend to the ground around our home. I am an even bigger fan after learning of their importance to wildlife, including and especially sage grouse, candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Not that my project will benefit any grouse, however, as the birds don’t live here anymore.   

The blue-green foliage of sagebrush is the omnipresent background of my childhood. We drove cows through it every spring, collecting wood ticks along the way. It is evident in every landscape painting my Mom created. It defines a range cowman’s world. If you haven’t stood amongst a stand of sage after a rain has released its aroma, or smelled a sagebrush fed campfire, you haven’t experienced Idaho. 

My poet grandmother said it like this:         

                                                     The Irish have their shamrock,
                                                     The 'Scot his bonny heather.
                                                     In Idaho, it’s the sagebrush
                                                     That holds us all together.

                                                                                   -Agnes Just Reid 

The view from our back terrace, successful transplants

A new start

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Help Arrives

The kingbirds are back. They hang out on the barbed wire fence feeding on insects, swooping down and around, making their catch and resting again on the wire. The mourning doves are especially active right now, calling plaintively back and forth. Ring-neck pheasants are pairing off, their throaty calls mixing in with a multitude of other melodies, dominated by the ubiquitous robin. We had two gorgeous days, but it’s blowing with fervor now and the cold is back.

I got the early garden vegetables planted - potatoes, peas, onions, beets, and a row of giant zinnias for good measure. I purchased seed at Firth Mill and Elevator. Claude, the proprietor, knows everyone’s business and asked about my Dad. He was a great resource a few years back when Seth had laying hens. The chicks are in stock this time of year and, oh what familiar scents and sounds!

I also made it into Kesler’s Garden Center and showed steely determination getting out for under $20. So easy to be taken in by trays of bright marigolds, alyssum, even roses in bloom. There’s plenty of time left this spring to blow the garden budget; best to let a few more frosts come and go.

Seth made it home from college last night. He had other options/ideas for the summer, but none panned out. Not that he didn’t want to come home, he just thinks he should be doing something with a wider scope. We discussed how the challenges of working for and with his dad and grandpa provide plenty of opportunities for self-growth. There are many lessons still to be learned at Pratt Ranch. In the end it was his English professor, a native Tunisian, who clinched the decision for him. She said that Americans do community service in place of helping their families.

Goodness knows we can use the help.

golden currant bush in bright spring display

Monday, May 9, 2011

An Emerald World

This week we spent three days in Boise at a marketing meeting. While we were gone, God thumbed a smudge of pale green across the willow limbs. At the front door the quakies are sporting a profusion of new leaves.

Last night we lay awake to a heavy rain, and this morning the fence posts are a deep sodden brown, the sky heavy.

We had disturbed a nest of baby rabbits in the haystack a few days ago and attempted to restore their home. This morning we found them all dead despite our efforts.  

The bulls are anxiously walking the fence, threatening a revolt since the cows across the lane have started cycling. They will need to be moved pronto or we’ll have them mixing.

The pairs over to Frank’s broke the gate down and helped themselves to the new grass in the next field. This morning we saw two dogs jogging away from the herd and there was a calf with his head bathed in bright red blood. We figure the dogs chased him through the barbed wire. Mark returned later to fix fence and loaded the injured calf and his mama for closer watching. Just another morning on the ranch.

It’s always good to get away and spend a few days delving into the business of Country Natural Beef. The co-op marked twenty-five years in existence with a prime rib dinner and music to celebrate the occasion. Mark found other agreeable partners in addition to his wife, dancing with Ginger, over 80, and our founder’s granddaughter at . . . oh, about 13. 

And always when we return home from a meeting, we go at our tasks with renewed diligence. I can almost feel the other members at my shoulder, wrestling with the same issues and enjoying similar morning views. They know all about dogs in the cattle; with some it’s even wolves. They do what they can to protect wildlife. They scan the horizon for weather. They lay in bed at night, weary from the routine, sorting options, thinking and rethinking this business that compels us. We lift each other up in this attempt to shift from raising cows to selling meat - a little more purpose to our days.   

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Equal Opportunity Employer

On Thursday morning we woke to a couple inches of new snow drilled into every crevice. It’s been cold and blowing since, but today the trees finally stilled and the sun is shining.  I don’t often complain about the weather . . . it just is . . . and besides we don’t get tornadoes in Idaho. But this spring has challenged me. I'm reminded of what Cousin Frank used to say, “it looks like a late spring, always is!”

We had two good days of branding. It is a chore that Mark and I just want to get behind us. The crew that comes to help seem to enjoy themselves, but we owners hate to stress the calves after working hard to keep them healthy. We generally have 4-5 ropers, neighbors that like to swing a loop. Then we might bring in others to help with groundwork, vaccinating or castrating. We feed the help and thank them when they leave.  

Lovely Amber came to rope, and Harli, Anna’s friend, helped vaccinate. Our ranch has always been friendly to female help. Women are soft with the cattle and patient trailing the herd. From the start I've been welcome to join in and work alongside the Pratt men. My Mom used to caution me to hold back some. She was afraid I would be taken for granted and get jobs I might regret getting. She knew from experience that wives can get taken in by ranch tasks, and then not have time for indoor work, which is waiting when we get home.

I remember the day we branded when I was a new mother. We were working within view of great grandma’s house. She was tending Seth and told me she would hang a dishtowel off the front porch when he woke up and was ready to be fed. When her signature snow-white towel showed up, I willingly pawned my dirty, smelly job on the guys and went to my son. Nursing him there in Bonnie’s rocking chair, in her cool bedroom with the light filtering through the curtains, the cows bellering now muted and faraway, I gave thanks for this life. A life that lets me do a man’s job and then within minutes perform the most feminine task assigned to women! A life that allows me to come and go, in and out of my husband’s daily outdoor work. Some days I rail against it, wishing I had taken my Mom’s advice to heart. But if I’m honest, most days I realize I have the best of both worlds and count my blessings. 

Anna and Harli working together

A clean catch, as low-stress as we can manage

Amber, a good hand, on Charlie