Monday, December 29, 2014

Peace on Earth?

It’s been great having the kids home. They got in on vaccinating heifers one day and have been helping feed cows. The cattle are in several different groups so we load two trucks and divide and conquer each day. 

We made it to two Christmas productions at our lovely old theatre in Idaho Falls and we’ve had fun playing games and digging deep into conversations in the evening. Mark is working on a puzzle of the nativity and is finally getting down to the fun part. I wonder if he needs my help now? We hosted Christmas dinner with a giant 4-H ham, garlic mashed red spuds from the garden, Becky’s famous corn casserole, and six kinds of pie.  

Seth gave me a book called Beef, The Untold Story of How Milk, Meat, and Muscle Shaped the World (more on that later) and a writer’s dictionary of quotes. But one of the best gifts from him was an article he forwarded to my email on the state of violence on our planet entitled The World is Not Falling Apart by Steven Pinker and Andrew Mack. It’s on a site called for anyone interested in reading the entire essay. Pinker and Mack clearly make the case through various well documented graphs and charts that violent acts are far fewer today than in previous times. No matter how many “hell in a hand basket” discussions we hear around the dining table, it’s just not true.

And of course each life is precious and I would never mean to lessen the horror of any one beheading or senseless police officer homicide or school shooting, but here’s the truth:  

Homicide rates, even in countries such as Mexico and South Africa, are sharply down. Crimes against women and children are down. The adoption of benevolent governance continues a steady march across the globe with most nations now operating as democracies. Even Russia and China are notably “less repressive” than in earlier times. Genocide and other civilian killings “point sharply downward” and armed conflicts by major powers are non-existent.  

So why do we convince ourselves it’s so bad? Probably because news is largely made by bad news, and with social media it’s all at our fingertips. And clearly violence sucks people in. 

I even think it seems worse precisely because we have it so good. Any atrocity is hard to stomach when avoiding gluten or taking the stairs instead of the elevator are the challenges of the day. 

Heck, even climate change seems at bay since we got a solid snow covering and frigid temps. Gotta love a white Christmas! 

waiting for company to arrive

they make even loading trucks fun

nope, not a work day

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

An Unlikely Leader

What does it mean to be a leader? That you aspire to political office? Class president? The back-to-school chairman of the PTA?

I never thought of myself as a leader, but somehow, at what some misguided folks might call middle age (!), I find myself in the current year’s class of Leadership Idaho Agriculture. Thirty individuals from a diverse background, from farmers and ranchers and industry folks (grain elevator, cheese production, seed supplier) to resource managers from the BLM and NRCS, a nutrition professor and a homemaker/agriculture advocate, we come together four times, over four months, to learn a variety of skills to “lead.”

I’ve been giving that word lots of think time. I ran it by Mark in our winter-time routine of early morning discussions in the dark before we get out of bed. This morning I asked him how he defined a leader. As is usual, he mostly listened and I mostly talked. So here goes:

A leader can be anyone in any circumstance. It’s not only a calling for those with an outgoing personality or the gift of gab, the extroverts that are so highly celebrated in our western culture; it's a calling for us all.  

It’s the middle sister who always plans the annual family campout, making sure the details are covered, right down to the matches in the glove box. It’s grandma, who provides the calm voice of reason during family squabbles. Or the ranching son who returns from college to “lead” dad and grandpa to a new way of doing business.  It might even be a ranch wife who turns her love of the land into a blog about the ranching life. 

Think of those around you who don’t necessarily step into the spotlight, but inspire others. Their influence is sometimes felt rather than heard. They keep calm when others panic. When others slide into apathy, they stay engaged, no matter their age or persuasion.

It starts with the oft quoted belief, “if not me, then who?” It is sound judgment practiced from a base of knowledge and experience. It is bravado, the courage to speak your truth even when it’s risky to do so. It’s valuing that even though you’re not the one to lead the charge up the mountain, you might be the one who poses the question at a contentious water meeting that finally turns the conversation in a constructive direction.

In every lifetime we get plenty of chances to lead. Maybe boiled down to its very essence, it is our higher self leading our unconscious, rote self, every single day.

I say we can all work on improving our leadership skills, and be a force for good – in our careers, in our families and communities, and in our sometimes scary and fragmented, but increasingly “connected” world.

Who’s with me?

A big part of Leadership Idaho Agriculture is learning about various food industries in the state:

washing and sorting potatoes in Pingree
photo by Jen Root

Garrett and Jeremey pose by chick peas ready for shipment in Lewiston

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Laying Low

Oh, December, how beautiful you are. I’ve been fighting a headache today, lying around on the couch indoors. My fogginess lifted this afternoon, enough to get me outside, and what a perfect December day it is. Crisp and cool and still. And the colors are lovely, if you can call them colors, just shades of brown and slate. Have you ever thought how the colors of a season match the activities that we associate with that season? Reflection and cozying up in winter, and by spring we’re running here and there, as crazy as the riot of color all around us.   

We had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday with the kids. The November college break is especially fun because they’ll be home again in another three weeks for Christmas. No sad goodbyes this time around.

Callie is helping Mark sort yearlings today. I’m quite sure she’s the only yoga teacher that works cattle on her off-days. I am enjoying going to her classes. Such a change of pace from ranching activities (or not depending on how you look at it, but that’s another blog post). She’s a very gracious teacher. Isn’t grace a wonderful word? In all the vicissitudes of life we should pursue grace. It fits every situation I can think of.

If December is so great and the kids will be home soon and Callie is here for another month, why am I so melancholy? Is it okay to not analyze it and just lay low and know that I’ll feel better soon enough?

I went into Walmart yesterday and Christmas has absolutely exploded there. With - you know it’s true, every cheap thing you would ever want to give, display or eat. I walked around and repeated to myself how these folks, pouring over newly displayed goods, were spiritual beings just like me and didn’t need my poor attitude. I wasn't very successful at it, I’ll admit.

Then as I was leaving the store I saw a friend who put me right. She has a ton of stuff on her plate right now, way more than me. She explained her plight and assured me there wasn’t a thing I could do for her. We laughed together and exchanged a touch and a smile. I hope it gave her a lift, I know it did me. 

my girls, good walking companions

Monday, November 24, 2014

Same Trail Different Generation

The cows didn’t want to leave, and maybe we should have listened to them. Perhaps it is as they say that animals can read the weather. Mark and I believed the forecast of heavy snow and high winds and so determined to fetch the cows to the valley, but as it turned out the storm didn’t materialize and we could have left them a little longer. And every day matters when you’re counting down to the haystack.

But, still, they were the last holdouts of the neighboring herds, and at the highest mountain pasture, nearly 2000 feet higher than the valley floor. And now they are here, safe and sound, and so are we.

Today was the last day of the trail home and I knew we had enough help so I asked Mark’s 95-yr-old grandmother if she wanted to ride along with me in our little Ranger pickup. I could let Kate keep the tail end of the herd caught up and Bonny would get to see Seth and Anna riding and be part of the day. She tried to talk herself out of going, but couldn’t find a good enough reason to stay home.

Mark and the kids started the herd early and I arranged to pick up Bonny at 10:00. I loaded Kate in the pickup shell and tucked in a blanket for Bonny's lap. We came upon the herd just as it was streaming down the last bench of high ground above the Snake River Plain. Grandma was teary-eyed as she wished out loud that Eldro, Mark’s grandpa now 14 years gone, could see the cattle.

She talked to me about the old days. How she was a town girl uprooted to the country and none too happy about it. She had to learn to like the cows; had to learn to like trailing them back and forth to the mountains. It wasn’t her idea to be a rancher’s wife, but after all the years she spoke with obvious pride in the herd, in the stake that she and Eldro had worked so hard to give us.

She said Eldro was the most determined man she had ever met, determined to build a farm and a cow herd, and how he had never cheated anyone out of a dime for his own benefit. Yes, it was hard for her to play second fiddle to the cows, but there was no regret or bitterness in her tone. She did what she had to do and it was a good life with many happy years.  

Bonny, and Anita, Mark’s Mom, and I are very different. We all married into this place and these cows, but we live this ranching life on our own terms. The details vary but the outlines overlap. Is it the same with other families? Or is it particularly so on a family ranch that the generations seem so close, almost side by side, separated only by the thin thread of time. 

reluctant to leave

trusting the movement

Monday, November 17, 2014

Looking Towards Home

There’s been a sea-change in the weather. Last weekend we were moving cattle through lovely stockpiled grass and enjoying mild temps. By Friday we were fighting a foot and a half of snow in the high country and getting cattle collected to fall back to lower elevation pastures.

We knew they needed to come down part way, and it’s not much fun to drag a horse trailer in deep snow, so we determined we could get the herd started with a 4-wheeler and a couple of dogs. Especially since Callie was home and she’s a force to be reckoned with on foot.

We loaded up and went in to town for gas and sandwich makings at the local Stop’ n Shop. We saw a friend there who inquired about our day’s task. I assured him we had the provisions we’d need to tackle snow country - chains, a shovel, walkie-talkies, hot coffee. He smiled and said, “remember my cell number?  . . . . forget it!”

Things went okay, but it always takes longer than you think it should. It snowed all day, a wet sticky snow that eventually worked through our layers of clothing. Our dogs were troopers, bounding through the snow, taking bites for drinks. 

At one point Callie and I had to wallow up a mountain to retrieve a third of the herd that had decided to follow a side hill full of bitterbrush. They kept climbing and climbing, enjoying their nibbling, and what could we do but follow? And then when Callie and Kate finally got around the highest individuals they were so content they just turned and headed back at the same elevation. After much hollering on our part they finally made it back to the road. We got them into the overnight pasture at dusk.

We have a new catch phrase for days like this. We heard it this summer from a rancher who takes interns on his ranch. On those particularly challenging days when the interns are wondering what they got themselves into, he says to them, “not everyone gets to do this!”

Kate at work 

by day two we had sunshine

Saturday, November 1, 2014


There’s snow in the forecast for later today but it’s mild so far this morning. It was a warm walk with the dogs except for two pockets of cold air sitting quietly on the ground, a harbinger of what’s to come.

It’s the first day of November - and I can believe it. There’s a kind of stillness in the air. Like the water in the canal, just a series of puddles sinking slowly into the aquifer. The dogs dive in like usual, not knowing to relish their last taste of it, but I do.

We didn’t get any trick-or-treaters last night, the usual since trunk-or-treat took over the ritual of driving between neighbors in the country. I realize the advantages of the parking lot celebration, but still . . . And yes, I always buy candy “just in case” and end up eating it myself. 

Callie and I harvested the last of the garden yesterday. She dug all the potatoes while I knelt and rifled through the dirt. She was a godsend, as it’s hard work to do by yourself and I hate to bug Mark; he doesn’t need another job. Cal thought it was fun to turn over a shovel full of dirt and have these beautiful red darlings tumble out. Like finding a fat asparagus spear among the grass in spring or colorful eggs at Easter. We pulled up the last of the beets and purple onions and clipped the parsley and rosemary to dry. 

The last chore at dusk was delivering the potatoes to Grandma Bonny’s pump house, a thick-walled storage building at the end of her sidewalk that keeps vegetables at just the right temperature. It’s a gem. I wish I had one, but she is glad to share hers. She used to have an underground cellar which filled with a foot of sub water every summer. How happy she was to move her wares into a dry, ground level, climate-controlled room of her own. 

Harvesting what the land produces is a particular joy of this way of life. Whether it’s a sturdy calf crop, a stack of alfalfa hay or a bag of herbs in the cupboard. It’s all fun. As Callie said, “nature is so cool!”   

lots of beef

a young strong back

Saturday, October 25, 2014

October's Mixed Bag

The wind is kicking up. Dang it. I hate it when it blows this time of year and sends all the colorful leaves to the ground. Last year the cottonwoods were a dull brown, this year they're brilliant golden. Does anybody know why that is? The severity of frost I suppose.

We moved the cows on Wednesday, and on the way out of the field saw that we had left a few - actually quite a few in a far off pasture. Mark and Jesse went back up today to fetch them and doctor a couple of cows that have foot rot.

Callie is home until the end of the year trying out her new yoga certification with mindbodydancer. She is teaching dance and yoga in our closest city of Idaho Falls. Oh, what fun it is to take class from her! And afterwards we wander around the old downtown trying out coffee houses for lunch. 

She worked three days on a blog post to send to her yoga community in New York City. She struggled to explain the differences in how rural Idahoans relate to one another as opposed to how residents of the big city boroughs do. She loves and appreciates both communities, but knows that here in small town America we truly see each other, and that everyone needs to be seen.

It’s quiet today and I’m deep into year-end bookwork. Cattle prices are sky high, so figuring out how to make timely investments into the ranch now is imperative. We save on taxes plus enjoy improvements which will get us through the inevitable lean years ahead.

Halloween was always a fun time of year when we were raising our kids. I still have several boxes of costume paraphernalia that I’m saving for grandkids someday. I envision my kids loading up the car to go rummage through Gramma’s treasure box before the big night. Anna was always a princess, Seth something more heinous, and Callie something different every year. She's conjuring up a scarecrow costume to attend an early Halloween party tonight. She already knew what she wanted to be and then saw a straw hat lying in the median on the way home from town!

I dug out the witch I made back when the kids were tiny. It’s on black poster paper mounted on a big orange moon. It’s torn in a couple of places and the back is plastered with old masking tape but it still makes late October feel like late October.

as sinister as ever

go away wind

pretty excited about their new field

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fall Chores

Fall is quiet once the calves are weaned. We separated the cows from the calves and trucked the youngsters home to green stockpiled feed. After a few days of missing mom, they’re lounging around in the sunshine. They seem content with their new-found independence but glad to be in good company.  

We gave them their protective shots this week and a dose of liquid parasiticide. Each calf is weighed and the pounds recorded next to their Mom’s unique numbered I.D. What a pleasure it is to watch their healthy, stout bodies go across the scale.

We vaccinated the cows as well and trailed them clear up to our highest elevation pasture. They’ll spend a few glorious weeks on cured-off native grasses, the best of fall feed. Mark and I spent one day with them and I can’t wait to get back up, so beautiful.  

Every day is a bonus now. Any time it could turn off cold and wintery so we’re busily checking off items on Mark’s to-do list that have been put off until now. The ridge at Brush Creek needs a new fence, the cabin needs more oil, and the horse corral needs repaired. And that’s just for starters.  

The irrigation water has lost its summer time frenzy so Mark can afford a few more minutes in bed each morning. The remaining streams are lazy and crystal clear with a few yellow leaves drifting by. I stood along the canal that runs along the west side of our property and watched the horses gather up fallen leaves under the cottonwoods. It’s always fun to watch animals eat and it’s surprising what they sometimes consume.

If you get the chance, or rather make the chance, take a few minutes to sit under a tree and listen for a falling leaf. It makes the most delicate of rustles, well worth the wait.    

Sly, Mark's mount for the day

my walking route along Kimball Road

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Before the Wreck

When things go wrong working cattle, the late, great, Bud Williams, always told us to take responsibility for it. It’s not the cows’ fault. “Were they doing it before you got there?” he would ask. Well no, they weren’t.

We call them wrecks – those days when the herd falls apart. They come infrequently, once every few years. Apparently we all need reminded that it can happen. One can get complacent.

I know one thing for sure; it’s harder on the womenfolk. Just ask Anita. Men take it in stride, just another day on the ranch. But for she and I the wrecks live on in our mind. We’ve been on the drag too many times when the weight of the herd gets heavier and heavier. More little heads looking back longingly for where they think Mom is. Second by second attention is required and it’s exhausting, even on those days when it doesn’t fall apart precisely because we’ve done everything in our power to prevent it.

It happened again on the first day of fall cattle work. It was a beautiful morning and I was sure Anita was getting some great photos as we let the herd out the gate into the lane heading down to Brush Creek. Poetic really, but in going through the gate and then confined to a narrow lane, lots of moms and kids got separated. When that happens they don’t trail well but keep looking around for each other. And it was just too many pairs traveling at once. We know this.

We got in the trees without enough forward momentum. Our crew was split and I couldn’t get Mark on the radio to send reinforcements, and they started running back in droves. By that time I was on foot, as my horse who had galloped into a badger hole earlier, had quit me. Not fun.  

But in the end the crew managed to gather up the ones that had run back and trailed them on down to the weaning pasture just as dusk descended.  

Someone said there was a beautiful sunset as we headed home. I honestly didn’t see it. We'd had one too many wrecks and I was too discouraged to notice.    

the gather - so far so good

looks peaceful right?

regrouping the renegades
 Gary, Anna and Callie
(and Martha)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Sisterhood Adventure

I am 55 and went across the ocean for the first time. What most surprises me about that line has nothing to do with the ocean;I can’t believe I’m 55! But then everyone feels the same if they dare put their age down on paper.

My sister Merle has been researching our ancestral roots and knew that our Dad’s line came from the Orkney’s on an island named Westray, two ferry rides off the northern tip of Scotland. How exotic is that? About a year ago we decided, all six of us sisters, to visit that faraway island and track down more of our ancestors in England, east of London.  

I spent most of the summer immersed in the planning of the trip. We knew we wanted to be gone for three weeks, but where to start planning a visit to the whole of the UK! We finally decided to book our dream cottage on the coast of Westray for three nights, and then build the rest of the trip around that. I put a large whiteboard up in the office with each day blocked out. We had many sister meetings pouring over travel books, working two computers simultaneously, slowly building our itinerary. More than once I said in exasperation, “Why didn’t we just book a tour bus!?”

In the end we created a mix of day tours, castles, pubs, cemeteries, cathedrals, stone walls, tourist traps, live music, shopping, and prehistory sites, and agreed we wouldn’t have changed a thing. From a hostel in Kirkwall, to an historic B and B in Berwick upon Tweed, to a sub-par house in Canterbury, the lodging was an adventure. And the train! We rocked the train. We even got good enough on the rails to dare hop off at Dunrobin Castle at a moment’s notice, knowing we would have to flag the train down on its next journey. All fun.

Mark asked me what I liked most about the trip. The Orkney islands stand out with their emerald pastures, fat sheep and cows, rock dykes (walls), and brooding coastlines.  The Scottish Highlands were captivating and the ferry rides great fun. Polling Scots on their view of the referendum was enlightening, as was noting the change in dialect as we traveled north. And the history was magnificent. The standing stones at the Ring of Brodgar predate Stonehenge!  

But it’s the people who helped us along our journey that I’ll remember the most. Jasmine, who I found through Facebook, meeting us with a hug at the train station in Faversham. Glynn, who researched our roots and took us to the very street where our great grandmother lived as a baby. Steve Williamson, the distinguished churchwarden at Ashwicken, who showed us the silver goblet that our great, great grandparents would have taken communion in. Fergus and Anna and Paulo who let us drop in on their beautiful cattle ranch in the Highlands. Hugh and Wilma, outfitting us with blankets for the military tattoo adventure and escorting us to the petrol station on our way out of Inverness. Geordie, who showed us his farming operation on Westray. Brynn on mainland Orkney who spoiled us with breakfast the likes our hostel had never seen before! I could go on and on. So to them I say thanks and be well.   

And also thanks to my sisters . . . my heroines, my role models, my best friends, for holding hands and hearts on this - our adventure of a lifetime.

only one bag each, you could hear us roll by!

the queen's entrance to her garden at Sandringham in Norfolk

Merle and Steve at Ashwicken, Norfolk

where our great grandma Emma was a baby, Middleton, Norfolk

lots of churches to explore

casualty of Henry VIII, York, England

beautiful, historic Berwick upon Tweed, just below the Scotland border

Fergus showed off his horses in the Highlands of Scotland

as castles go, Dunrobin is splendid

waiting to hail the train

Ring of Brodgar on Orkney mainland, that's heather in the foreground!

that's our tool van in front of our deluxe accommodation

finding old Reid headstones at Lady Kirk in Pierowall village

they know a cowgirl when they see one, Orkney isles

Geordie's nice indoor housing facility for his cows on Westray

Lighthouse on Westray

big yearlings heading off the island on the ferry

counting pence coins in Edinburgh, someone's got to do it

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Noble Endeavor

Three yellow warblers are flitting about in the quakies outside my office window. A hummingbird is checking out the hollyhocks.

We’ve had life giving rain, lots of it. It’s heaven sent for our range ground, but it’s hard to find enough dry weather to cure a hay crop. The neighboring farmers are complaining as well. Acres and acres of wheat and barley still wait for the combine. And every new shower threatens to sprout grain in the fields, which at best comprises the quality of the crop. At worst (and it's getting that bad) it means a total crop failure. 

We flew a short visit to the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to see Seth’s end-of-season presentation as a summer intern. I’ve always wanted to see what was left of the tall grass prairie. The sheer volume of biomass is impressive. I’ve heard the names before, osage orange, greenbrier and mesquite, little bluestem, tall fescue and bermuda grass, crepe myrtle in bloom, all against a backdrop of katydid singing (if you can call the clamor, singing). Way cool.

The Noble Foundation was established in 1945 by Lloyd Noble, an oil baron who knew that oil money was temporary, that the land was our true sustaining wealth. He witnessed the devastation of the dust bowl years and was determined to help agriculture producers learn how to better care for the soil. Dead at 53 from a heart attack, Noble’s oil fortune created an organization that offers free education and consultation to area ag producers and conducts forage crop research to develop traits needed to meet today's challenges, such as drought tolerance in alfalfa.

We had a great time with Seth touring the foundation's grazing lands and even had a morning-long consulting session of our own. And to top it off we had an enlightening drive back to the airport. We rode with one of the foundation’s bio-technology researchers. He was born and educated in China and now makes his home in Oklahoma. We learned that part of his research includes genetic modification trials. What followed was an intriguing ninety minute conversation about his view from the research side and our view from the consumer-driven side. He was surprised to hear that our natural beef customers are demanding GMO free beef. He couldn’t understand their health concerns, as he sees GMO crops as safer than conventionally crossbred crops because of the rigorous testing GMO crops must pass.

The conversation certainly broadened our knowledge of the topic, but we'll continue to listen and learn from both sides of the fence. One thing we know for sure is that discussions like this, often precipitated by institutions like the Noble Foundation, need to happen more often - discussions without predetermined agendas and a willingness to learn.  

previously plowed but now native vegetation in Oklahoma

the real deal native in Idaho

Friday, August 1, 2014

Growing Supper

We've had cooler weather. It's still hot during the day, but the breeze coming across our bed at night is chilly. My front flower bed is in full bloom, mostly black-eyed susans which are lovely, but the scattered purple coneflowers are what the hummingbirds and butterflies visit when they show up. 

It’s that time of year when everyone growing a garden feels pretty smug with themselves. They bypass the produce section in the grocery store and learn anew how resplendent, colorful, varied in taste and texture a vegetable really is.

I thinned the beets and served the young tubers along with the greens on top, root and all. The taste is pure mother earth. You don’t think of beets as sweet, but they seem so when contrasted with the hint of bitter in the greens, a delicious pairing.

And the new red spuds are perfection. “Like butter,” my sis would say about them, as she does anything that is as good as butter is.

I tried the Ruth Stout method of planting spuds. Not with the entire crop, just the ones I intended to harvest as the season progressed, as opposed to those I want to leave in the ground for fall harvest to be stored over the winter. You lay the cut spud on top of the ground with an eye or two on top, then cover it with a heavy layer of mulch. A sprout develops and comes up through the mulch and grows a large plant while under the mulch a feeler comes out to start a new potato. You can reach under the mulch and see the whole process, harvest what you want, and then pull the mulch back over without disturbing the little ones. My grandmother, who liked to sneak a few spuds out mid-season, called this careful harvest “tickling” for potatoes.

There are lots of yards around but few vegetable gardens. I don't understand why anyone with a patch of earth, owned or rented or borrowed, wouldn’t put in a seed and grow some food. I think if we all nurtured a cucumber or squash, a few plants of basil or beans, many of our planet’s problems would abate - just from the knowledge gained by grasping the power of dirt. We’re all dependent on it; we’re just romanced by supermarkets and restaurants, fooled into thinking we don’t owe our lives each day to soil and water and sunshine.

yes, it's all edible

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Teaching Teachers

Mark and I have been gorging on green peas from the garden. He likes them lightly boiled, add butter. I like them straight from the pod, preferably one after another as you’re picking them. Didn’t we all do that as kids? Raid the pea patch? If you didn't you should have. One of the joys of childhood . . . and adulthood.

I am officially connected. Yes, I got an i-phone. I was having a hard time talking myself into it. My sister-in-law, Mona, told me, “Of course you’re worth it!” Seth told me, “Go ahead and get it Mom. You’re going to have buyer’s remorse, but that’s okay.” It's a kick. I can even send photos with my texts to the kids!

It’s been hot, in the mid 90’s most days. We lucked out and got a break in the heat long enough to host an evening function at Gary’s dance barn; twenty-five teachers touring Idaho agricultural operations for continuing education credit. They were hosted by a program called “Ag in the Classroom.” What fun, engaging, inquisitive folks they were!

Mark showed them an irrigated pasture and explained the benefits of time-controlled grazing. I compiled a slide show of a year on the ranch. Then as supper was laid out in the shaded courtyard, Mark walked them out for a “meet and greet” with Gary’s Longhorn pairs. The evening was perfect, no wind, no bugs, sublime temperatures, good food and stimulating conversation.

It was the culmination of the teachers’ three day tour and they shared insights they had gained from visiting food producers including, among others, a dairy, a large scale farm, a fish hatchery, and a honey bee operation. One teacher said, “I’m glad they (farmers and ranchers) are still here. My grandparent’s farm is a subdivision.” Another said that from her vantage in our state's capital city of Boise where promising jobs are offered mostly by hi-tech, the medical field and government, it had been a real eye-opener. “I can’t wait to get back and tell my gifted and talented students about the wonderful opportunities for a career in agriculture.”

Education – only this time going upstream to the teacher. We were honored to be a part of it. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Pedaling thru July

There is simple pleasure in having a bike waiting for you at the end of the sidewalk, slanted against the kickstand, waiting. I haven’t ridden a bike since, well, I never really rode a bike much. I got one in college, a ten-speed with skinny tires that I never felt safe on. Plus, biking in the city probably wasn’t in the cards for a timid country girl. I grew up on a dirt road, not much fun biking there either. Who knew at the age of fifty-four I would discover the joys of riding a bicycle?

Anna left her hand-me-down bike at home this summer. It's faded purple, a Diamondback, and just my size. Actually she forgot it, but now I tell her she can’t take it back until school starts.  

I live in the perfect situation for a bike. It’s a short ¾ mile to ranch headquarters, paved road, minimal traffic. I take the dogs with me, and my favorite part is stopping at the canal to let them wade in for a drink, cooling off up to their bellies. The plants are heady with July growth. On the way by I soak up a passing fragrance of . . . what is that? Milkweed in bloom, alfalfa, maybe yellow headed mustard, or just the coyote willows that crowd the lane. Today a swallow was tormenting a hawk, who just shrugged at her threats. Some days I pedal through a lovely bank of cool air. All of this we miss driving our vehicles with the radio on and the air conditioner blowing.  

Bonny, at 95, wishes she could ride with me. She told me about Gary’s bike he bought with his own money when he was 10 years old. He gathered beer and pop bottles for recycling. He would fill a case of twenty-four and get 35 cents for a case of beer bottles and 50 cents for pop bottles. He hit the mother lode in a neighbor’s trash heap, $11.00 in one stop! The local grocer gave him cash in return. His folks took him to Clegg's Second Hand Store where they sold new bicycles. When he got his bike home he was disappointed to find it didn't go very good in the sand. I discovered the same thing when I spun out in the stackyard.

Gary still has the bike, it cost $35.00, a fortune to a kid in the 50’s. He added a carrier later on to haul a passenger along. 

I'm on the hunt for a used basket to fasten to the handlebars and complete my look. 

Gary's blue and white Schwinn -circa 1954
(note the beaded buckskin gloves)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Shades of Gray

It’s been cool for mid-June. The hot weather garden plants have stalled out temporarily. 

We’ve had some rain, but not enough to give us much relief. A lightning storm blew through and spawned a fire in the lower elevation mountains along the Blackfoot River. I hate to see that, not that fire is necessarily bad. This one may have a positive effect, but I don’t want anything to encourage the march of cheat grass to the higher country. Parts of our nearby range is starting to burn regularly which encourages more of this annual grass to get a toehold. And with an extremely short green season, hence the name "cheat," it creates a tinder box of fuel. In southwest Idaho this combo has created a vicious cycle that threatens more and more native rangeland.  

We spent a few days in Central Oregon meeting with other ranchers throughout the West, taking a peek into each other’s businesses. We stayed at and toured a ranch where juniper trees are their major invasive problem. In their case, fire suppression is part of the scenario that creates a backlog of trees and the resulting simplification of the ecosystem. Seems every place has its nemesis. It was a beautiful operation with a respectful three-generation family that is addressing their challenges and making sure it works for everyone.

Mark and I went to check on the cows when we got home. We gambled on not needing a horse, so just took 4-wheelers to put out salt. What we found were a couple of very sick calves. Not to be deterred, Mark had me drive slowly alongside the calves while he sat sideways on the back of the machine with his lariat poised. At the right moment he hopped off and tossed the loop over the calf’s head and wrapped the rope around the rack of the 4-wheeler. I held the rope while he carefully gave them a shot of antibiotic and put two pills down their throat with a long handled “gun.” He said when there are sick calves there’s no need to be a cowboy. He's gotten really good at sneaking up on them. The procedure won't make the cover of a magazine but it works.

The older I get the more gray I see, not only in my hair but in all the situations of life. I know the answer to most questions is, "it depends." Whether it's grazing, fire, stockmanship - whatever, tell me how it's done, what other factors are at work, what's your objective? It's hardly black and white. 

a beautiful storm from this vantage

Thursday, June 12, 2014

June, Oh June

June is pure magic. I find lots to worry about, it’s just my nature - from world scale concerns like climate change and invasive species, to my own backyard landscaping which is progressing at a snail’s pace and what to fix for dinner. But every day there’s an underlying thrill, a great satisfaction, from simply living in Idaho on a ranch in June.

We moved a group of yearlings to the pasture in front of the house. We like to watch their grazing behavior over our morning coffee.

The replacement heifers are on a piece of rented property on the other side of town. Mark and I have regular dates changing paddocks. Yesterday following a move we bought a sandwich at the co-op and sat on the grass in the park for a picnic. That’s a rare occurrence.

I get regular updates from Seth who is interning at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Oklahoma. It’s tall grass prairie country, so he filled me in on the particular challenges producers face with too much, and not very nutritious grasses. One of the research projects he is working on is mob grazing. He was helping set up electric fence yesterday and dealing with cattle that weren’t trained to it. He said it felt like home!

I went with my friend Jack to visit the grazing/grouse research project being conducted nearby. We observed the technicians, Haley, from Portland, Oregon, and Jennifer, from San Diego, California, laying out a monitoring transect to measure vegetation traits of grouse nesting sites. This particular hen’s clutch had been predated. Her radio collar had sent a mortality signal, and we found feathers at the site so surmised she was wounded when the eggs were eaten. I enjoyed learning about the specifics of the project, but even more I enjoyed the conversations with Jack, a grouse biologist, and the stops along the drive to walk through and discuss what we see happening with vegetation on the landscape.

Yes, we’re behind, no we’ll probably never be “caught up.” When I get discouraged I think of a great line from Emily Dickinson, “to live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else.” And I feel better just living. 

changing paddocks

changing paddocks, again

company for coffee

this hen picked poor habitat for a nest