Thursday, December 31, 2015

Colder Still

When it’s sub-zero, everything is doubly difficult on a ranch. The water troughs need chopped daily and the ice thrown clear, the trucks and tractors don’t want to start, and everything creaks and groans with the weight of cold. Including us, of course.

I feel bad for the livestock, but if they have enough feed and a good drink they’ll be okay. We methodically make our rounds each morning to every herd, feeding and tending water, and don’t expect to do much else during the day.   

I ran into a friend, a fellow rancher, in town, and asked him how they were doing keeping the cattle and sheep tended. He said, “Don’t do it!” I laughed and replied, “It’s too late!”

I walked to grandmas in a face mask on the coldest day. Mark drove by as I was headed out the driveway and said he didn’t think I was tough enough to make the walk. Humph! As I walked, I heard loud popping noises coming from the neighboring field. At first I thought it was goose hunters, but then decided it must be ice breaking on the canal. The sound was stiff and hard and beautiful.    

Mark caught a mean virus and had to sleep in the recliner last night to get a breath. I hate when he gets sick and still has to be out in this every day.

Callie made it back to New York City. That seems like forever away. As we were headed to the airport we talked about her “vacation.” It was mostly family parties and tending cows.

We moved cattle on Christmas Eve which was an event. It was going swell until the last leg when the cows discovered alfalfa under the snow and spread out far and wide grazing. The kids were on foot and got caught too far from the pickup and trailer which housed a horse and a 4-wheeler, brought along for just such a situation. When I finally got there with the back end and my dog to help, they were exhausted and mad. We got the cows put away, but it was with much gnashing of teeth. Now it’s only another memory of another Christmas. At least the kids were together, fighting the same battle.

It’s always been thus - a ranch kid’s holiday.

you go . . . no, you go!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas on the Ranch

The cows made it home for Christmas. It takes three days to gather the field and walk them down the county road. They string out single file to avoid the icy roadway and we can usually get it done with one horse, which may spend all day in the horse trailer if she’s not needed. I’m a chicken on horseback in the snow and it’s almost impossible to dress warm enough in the winter riding a horse. I would rather walk and work my dog.

One morning Mark dropped me off a couple of miles back from the herd to bring along two stragglers. It was lovely, just me and the cows in a desolate winter landscape. The only sounds were the rustle of our feet treading through the snow and the low murmur of the river in the canyon below us.

On the last morning when we had entered the realm of farm ground, the herd discovered lush winter wheat under the snow. Kate and I had a good workout getting them lined out again. Kate flew and I trudged. It was great fun.

The older I get the more I love to walk. And it's not a problem keeping warm, just the opposite. Mark has always said I have a three degree comfort range, and that was before menopause. All you fifty-plus women out there, you know what I mean. Whether hot or cold, you’ll know what state I’m in depending on how much outerwear I’ve shed. If I'm carrying part of my clothing, in a few minutes I’ll be cold and have to layer it back on again. Guys have it so easy.

The kids made it home too. We went to the local production of “A Christmas Carol” last night. It was storming and we almost talked ourselves out of going, but were so glad we went. It was a first rate production in a small old-timey theatre. This 1843 story never gets old; in fact it improves with age.  
The actor that played Scrooge was as good as any Broadway star and Tiny Tim and his timeless,”God bless us, every one,” never gets old.   

We're looking forward to working outside together during the day and games and good conversation in the evenings. 

Merry Christmas! 

cows were here

the last long climb

Blackfoot River

this year's wreath, also ranch raised

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Worship, for a Change

We have a nice snow cover which feels very Christmasy. Christmas is slowly taking shape inside as well. Seth and Anna arrive today, and we’ve waited to bring in the tree until they’re home. I love the, “Oh, I remember this!” that happens when the kids do the trimming.  

With the frigid work of caring for cows ongoing, I had an enjoyable change of pace taking Grandma to church on Sunday. She’s a practicing Episcopalian who doesn’t get to practice much since she gave up her car. She was afraid no one in the congregation would remember her, but of course they did. We entered through the blood red doorway and were welcomed warmly in to their tiny community. 

The Episcopal service is very participatory. Bonny’s eyesight isn’t too good, and I was lost trying to find the hymns and chants in the books tucked in the rack in front of us. As I was going back and forth between the hymnal and the prayer book, I turned to the fellow behind us with a questioning look. He cheerfully exchanged books with me as he was already on the right page. He would do this a couple more times before the service was over.      

I have never been a churchgoer. My folks taught by example and provided all I needed as a kid. But still, I hated having to say I was a “nothing” when the other kids at school asked me what religion I was. Mark was raised like me, so it was natural to do the same with our own kids. I’m sure they had the same issues at school being different from their peers. Anna had the right idea when she told her teacher she was “home-churched.” Brilliant.

Grandma Bonny never forced her religion on anyone, but she did the kids a good turn when she enrolled them in bible camp over the summer. The camp was hosted by a different Christian denomination every year so the kids got comfortable with the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Catholics and the Methodists. Now wherever they go they’re at ease visiting local churches. Or not visiting them for that matter.  

Thankfully I am comfortable as an adult, as a nothing. I don’t have to be a “believer” to believe in the power of faith and prayer and community. However and wherever each of us finds peace and comfort is good with me.

The best part of the service on Sunday was "The Peace," that time before communion where parishioners turn to one another in greeting. Handshakes and hugs are shared and wishes of peace exchanged. So fitting for the season. “Peace be with you . . . and also with you.” 

Friday, December 4, 2015

Get Up and Move!

We had a last fun day before Callie went back to the East Coast. Seth and Anna were already gone so it was just her and I. We walked to Bonny’s first thing in the morning. As we were visiting, Callie was doing her usual moving, bending, stretching, rarely sitting. Bonny asked if her back was hurting. “No,” Callie said, “I’m just stretching.”

Bonny keyed right into that and proceeded to tell her how old people quit moving far too early and bring on the very ailments they habitually complain about. Then she mimicked an old person hobbling from one sitting perch to the next around her dining table and scolded an imaginary senior: “Hell-a-mighty, get up and move!”

We laughed and said that the quote would go great on the wall of Callie’s someday studio - in big letters where her clients could memorize the message ending with a flourish of credit to “grandma Bonny.”

It is remarkable that these two women, Cal at 29 and grandma at 96, are of like minds when it comes to movement. Bonny doesn’t know “saunter,” instead she rises from a chair and takes off double time (yes, we cringe when she does it fearing a fall, but alas).  

In Bonny’s day, of course, you worked hard just to survive. She was driven by a depression era work ethic and a will to get a lot of things done every day. Grandpa was a hard worker as well. While he tended the livestock and crops, she steadfastly defended the home front. After I married into the family, grandpa’s cousin and a good friend of Bonny’s gave me some advice, “Don’t try to keep up with Bonny!”

On a side note Bonny admits now that she was too fussy about white, whites and impeccable organization. I think she wishes she had taken more time for personal enjoyment. But that’s another blog.

Our Callie, a modern dancer certified to teach yoga and restorative exercise, preaches: you are how you move. And that good physical health is not hitting the treadmill in the basement, going to the gym, lifting weights or running marathons. Instead it’s about how you move throughout your day. We should all take heart. What great news!

I’m trying to incorporate what she teaches. Don’t just sit while doing sedentary activities, change it up. Get on the floor while watching TV, vary your sitting position or create a standing work station when you’re at the computer. Keep those ham strings and calf muscles stretched out to negate the consequences of sitting. Train track your feet straight ahead when you stand and walk. And walk, walk every day; it’s the perfect exercise.

And there’s more. Bonny was born with scoliosis. Her little back is twisted terribly, but she still has better carriage than many folks half her age. Is she perfect? No. Can you and I do better from her example? Hell-a-mighty yes!

67 years apart and not that different

Steadying Birdie while Mark takes her shoes off for the winter

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Silver Anniversary

The breeze has been coming from the north for over a week. That means it’s cold. The other 99% of the time it blows out of the southwest and is much kinder.

We marked a milestone during Thanksgiving week – 25 years of marriage. We didn’t really celebrate, just enjoyed having the kids home. We’re trying to think of some grand purchase to mark the occasion. Our bedroom furniture was second-hand when Mark moved out of his parents’ home 27 years ago, and still shows the permanent marker scribbles made by Seth as a youngster. Our TV was new in 1988. I’m still waiting for steps off the back terrace instead of a rotting stump. But those things don’t matter. We’ll tend to them eventually. I truly want for nothing. Nothing except time to do everything that interests me.

We emptied the mudroom of warm clothing to get the kids outfitted to move cows from our highest elevation pasture with 10 inches of snow to a lower pasture with about 5 inches. We took the four-wheelers which we can load in the back of the pickup instead of dragging a horse trailer through the snow. The machines are handy for sure, but we use them judiciously, preferring to use horses for most jobs. A horse needs to be needed. Use a four wheeler too much and your horse won’t be any good the day you go to saddle him.

We had the mountains to ourselves and as the rest of the crew tended elsewhere, I brought up the drag with the dogs, Nan and Kate. Snow herding with dry cows is the quietest of jobs. The herd especially enjoyed the bitterbrush and I was happy to walk through the snow urging the dogs out around the wanderers.     

The morning of our anniversary, before the kids arrived to change the empty nest dynamic, Mark and I laid in bed in the dark and talked over memories from a quarter of a century together. First I cried because it went so fast. Then we laughed when I talked about Mark’s naiveté when he married me. I'm sure he thought it would be easier than this. Oh, to find out the vagaries of a woman! A "tiger by the tail” comes to mind. 

Someone said (actually maybe it was me): “Look for your mate with a magnifying glass, but look at your mate through rose-colored glasses.” Mark does that for me. One time he said, “I don’t see your faults.” But that was a long time ago. Now he could make a list! Let’s just say he glosses over my faults. And that is a gift. Not silver perhaps, but precious nonetheless.    

photo by Seth

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Temporary Measures

We spent another day in the mountains moving cattle. It was cold and windy. I dressed warm but not warm enough. Riding a 4-wheeler is even colder than riding a horse, except for the heated handles. Mark and I traded off driving to warm up our fingers.

The cattle moved easily except for one head. Everyone else came to meet us. T44 blue was reluctant to cross a far-off creek. Mark saw her outline from a distance and tried to impress me by correctly identifying her. I’m not easily impressed. Tell me why he knows her from a speck on the horizon and he didn't notice my new jeans?

T44 blue is 8 years old now and Mark remembers her as having her first calf as a 2-yr-old in January. She was one of three that year that were accidently bred early and calved in January instead of March and April. She’s the only one of the three still in the herd. We drove around the long way to fetch her. As soon as Mark knew who she was, he knew that her docile temperament would allow me to walk her on foot to a better creek crossing. How does he know her emotional traits and keep her straight from all the other hundreds of cows? His answer: “I’ve been around her for eight years!”  

She indeed was a nice, calm cow and Kate and I got her back with the others after a pleasant walk-about. We followed her by a spring that rises out of a bowl in the sagebrush and quickly turns into a substantial creek. Were those baby trout I saw darting from bank to bank?

super conditions for winter grazing

how Kate gets a drink

There’s always odds and ends to attend to besides the cattle and today was no exception. The lovely arch we inherited at the mountain ranch is falling over. Thank goodness Mark had delivered a stout post this summer to do the repair work. He never got to the repair, but the post was handy for what we call a “greasy sacker fix” to prop up the arch ‘til spring.

a better fix will have to wait until next year

Then on the way home we spied another gate in disrepair. We’ll need this later on when we walk the cattle home. It’s on the county road adjacent to a cattleguard. We stopped so Mark could reset a post that had been knocked over. The gate needs extended, but for now a macramé of plastic baling twine will work to connect it to the brace post at the end of the cattleguard. Like the arch, Mark called his fix a “temporary measure.” He referenced one of his favorite humorists, Patrick McManus, who says that a temporary measure is in danger of becoming a permanent measure if it lasts long enough!

using the window to hold up the wing of the cattleguard 

"our best is none too good"

Thursday, November 12, 2015

A Nuanced Season

November is a quiet month, a subtle month. And as the year gets older, the landscape looks more and more like my wardrobe – neutrals. I own one melon colored t-shirt, a red wool coat and a couple of teal tops. Everything else is brown, gray or black. Hmmm. What does that say about me?

Maybe all it says is that I think neutrals are beautiful. That nuances are beautiful. And November is nuanced for sure. Even its holiday, Thanksgiving, the start of the cluttered Christmas season, is still bathed in neutrals and subtleties. Most Thanksgiving days are mocha colored, the color of bare tree limbs. And what’s not to love about mocha?

The cows are still in the mountains. We moved them to a new pasture where tall bunch grasses reach above the few inches of snow. A little snow is fine if it doesn’t get too cold or too deep. We walk around with our fingers crossed. Every day now is a gift away from the haystack.

The calves are grazing here in the valley. We took the heifers to a pivot of wheat owned by a man who isn’t afraid to let cows on his farm, a rare commodity in our community.  A farmer willing to run the pivot after the wheat is harvested and fall fertilize. He says the calves will reprocess the fertilizer and leave it for next year’s crop. The conditions were perfect this fall for good regrowth and there was plenty of seed since a rogue hail storm put 10% of the crop on the ground before threshing. Still it's an experiment and a bit of a gamble. Deep snow or super wet conditions could derail the grazing days/acre needed to make the whole thing work. 

We’ll share the labor, and when it’s done we’ll share the figures, and hopefully it will work out to the plus side of both our ledgers.   

Mark and Jesse strung an electric wire along the pivot so that we can move the fence by rolling the pivot every couple of days to give them a fresh paddock. We call this “rationing” of stock-piled feed. Statistics say you’ll increase utilization by up to 40% doling out the forage instead of letting them have it all at once. 

So it’s about cows as it always is. And it’s about trust. And about continuing to seek new knowledge. Fitting for November when one feels reflective. When we take stock of the year behind us and think about what the next season has in store.  

calling the cows to change fields
"come on cows!"

rolling the pivot to change fields

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Finding Doc

It was cold yesterday. I wore my coveralls all day. I’m still in my summer skin - still pumping my summer blood - so the extra layer was wonderful. I thanked Mark over and over for suggesting I throw them in the pickup.

We went to the hills to let the herd into another field. They could hear us coming on the 4-wheeler and jogged to meet us. They know the deal.

We were surprised to see an antelope in their midst. Actually, he was out in front getting the heck out of the way! We think of antelope as flatlanders; what was he doing up here in snow country?

The next job after letting the cows through the gate was hauling the bulls home from an adjacent pasture. We had left two horses, Doc and Jane, at the mountain ranch to do this very job, but when we went looking for them, we found Jane by herself. Any horseman knows this as a heartsick affair. Horses are eternally lonesome for their own kind and to go from two horses to one horse usually means disaster. My mind had him dead from a hunter’s bullet or from getting tangled up in fencing wire. We searched nearby and found nothing. Knowing that Mark’s folks were waiting at the corrals, we proceeded moving the bulls with a sick feeling.

When we got the bulls loaded and the trailers headed for home, me driving one outfit, Mark searched for Doc one more time to no avail. He had a thought, though, when he remembered a lone sheepherder’s horse next to a sheep camp due west of there. It’s on the route home. Could Doc have somehow gotten out of our pasture, traveled cross country over a ridge and attached to this horse? Turns out that’s exactly what he did. Mark spied him with the binoculars, rode Jane out in the field, slipped the halter on the visiting buckskin, and left the sheepherder’s bay to himself again.

I was already home and had delivered my load of bulls when Mark called. He was on top of a mountain where he could get cell service. I was in the garden. They were calling for a heavy frost so I was pulling the hold-out onions and beets, and cutting the last two purple cabbages. It was almost dark. What a relief to hear his good news!

I washed my produce in the light from the dining room window and laid down on the lawn. I could hear the bulls bellowing from their fall pasture just a quarter mile away, and in the background the rustle of leaves falling off the cottonwoods. I said my “thank you” to the universe and felt the solidness of the earth beneath me. My only care was that I was a day late to enjoy the hunter full moon.

they do love fresh feed

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Through Donna's Eyes

My sister Donna moved to the east coast over thirty years ago. She went for an adventure. She didn’t really mean to stay that long, but stay she did. She’s the reason we’ve seen most of the Smithsonian museums, Gettysburg, Colonial Williamsburg, Mt. Vernon and Monticello. We’ve sailed the Chesapeake Bay, driven the Blue Ridge Mts., and strolled the boardwalks of Rehoboth Beach because of her. We’ve missed having her here these long years, but it’s enriched our lives having her home as a pinpoint on the map of the U.S.

It was her turn this year to come out west. When she pulled into our driveway she immediately started taking photographs of our freshly rained on fall-colored home site. She’s never been the one taking pictures, but with her smart phone has discovered a new hobby. Her images see our home from a different perspective.

She was here for sister retreat, our annual trip to reconnect us six sisters. This year we traveled to Salt Lake City, Utah, to the south, and Stevensville, Montana, to the north.

We viewed our grandmother’s “special collection” at the JW Marriott Library at the University of Utah. The staff had us put our bags and cell phones in a locker at the front of the collection and slip on white gloves to view the photographs put away by our grandmother many years ago for safekeeping.

We had gone to Salt Lake City for a history lesson. On our Mom’s side, we found our great grandfather’s simple grave marker among the 120,000 souls interred in the Salt Lake Cemetery. And from our Dad’s side, we searched the military rolls at Fort Douglas for a civil war soldier that played a poignant part of our history.

In the evenings we laughed in the hot tub, played Jenga, and assigned each sister the task of coming up with a one-word characteristic to describe each of us.  “Selfless,” “tough,” “eclectic,” “peacemaker,” “poised,” “over-thinker” all made the list.

We got back home and added our brother for an afternoon tour of the local graveyards looking for ancestors. Merle, my genealogically minded sis, had a list of names and photos, which along with colorful oral stories she knows by heart, made it an afternoon to remember. Bright sunshine and fall leaves scattered over the graves made the scene complete.

We’re now all immersed in our lives again. Left with the emailed images from a cell phone camera back at work selling houses in Maryland. The images, the impressions, of my East Coast sis - or as she calls herself, "our faraway sister."  

Jemmett headstone at Hillcrest Cemetery

storm over Higham's Peak

the olive and grandpa's table

fall pasture

October's freshly blooming black-eyed susans 

Reid Valley apples

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

To Everything its Season

We’ve had a string of cow-working days. Preparation for winter means weaning calves and processing individuals to update their vaccinations, and giving them their annual dose of parasiticide. The bulls are taken to their own pasture. The calves are trucked to the valley where they can eat our best feed. The adults stay in the mountains until snow forces us out.    

Ask any cowman or woman, and they’ll tell you that fall is their favorite time of year. The weather has cooled, the horseflies are gone. The mature perennial grasses are a soft, buttery color. The trees and brush go from yellow and rust to shades of grey. And when the calves come off a silence descends on the herd that’s like winter herself.  

We walked the cows to their fall pasture yesterday. They stretched for more than a mile, walking single file. Watching them this time of year, I always think of the word “resolute.” They know where they’re headed. They trust us.  

My sis rode with us a couple of days. She enjoyed it a lot, and having her along made me remember why I married a rancher in the first place. Riding horses and trailing cows was a grand activity when we were kids. And I still love it, it’s just that the burden of ownership gets in the way.  

Yesterday was near perfect. Not only was the weather sublime and the cattle willing, but we had some excitement before the day was over when we collided with a band of sheep. The big white dogs that provide predator protection to the sheep started chasing our cows. The sheep got in the action and all three species came barreling toward us scaring our horses. Kit took her frightened horse out of the melee and I got off Jane, afraid that in her fear she might remember she knows how to buck. Mark got control of his Doc horse and with the dogs got the sheep collected and away from the cattle. In a few minutes all was quiet again and the herd was safely through the gate.  

Kit has come back to riding horses. She was too busy raising kids, and working and owning a family business, to commit the time, energy, and money required to keep a horse fit. Never mind the tack and pickup and trailer to have on the side. She had an epiphany a couple of years ago when she had a rare day off and happened to ride a friend’s mare, one of those memorable horses that is kind, responsive and an absolute joy to handle. Kit remembered just how much horseback riding had meant to her as a young woman. Now she has a good, safe horse, her own saddle and her own transportation.

Most of all she has the luxury of time . . . and a post-fifty mindset that says, “it’s later than you think." Time to put first things first.

counting them through the working corrals

my sis and me

weaning day

Doc and Jane, our helpmates

before the sheep incident

Monday, October 5, 2015


It’s not what it used to be.

We run cattle in a grazing cooperative that’s been around since 1916. My great grandmother was a founding shareholder. Mark's family also has a history in the cooperative. We've heard stories of round-up for many years. Used to be that men (and men only!) rode their horses from area to area to gather cattle together in bunches. Each owner cut his cattle from the most numerous brand of the day and trailed his group back to his grazing area. Everyone rode each allotment because with no fences the cattle could roam over large distances. It meant the cowboys stayed overnight in the mountains for 10 days or so and rode in a different direction each day.

Now we have fences that divide up the range so mixing of brands is minimized. Usually a couple of days will get the cattle collected. Other things have changed of course. It's usually done on the weekend so it doesn't conflict with town jobs. Most of us sleep in our own beds in the valley instead of throwing a bedroll on the cold ground or riding from a far off cabin before and after the day’s work.  

But some things haven’t changed. If you're less experienced you're expected to hold herd and let the real cowboys do the work of cutting out strays. Holding herd is an important job, but boring. Cutting out is loads of fun. I told Mark I’m sick of holding herd. I’ve paid my dues so let me in the herd already! It still pays to know everyone’s brand and ear tag. And for heaven’s sake cut out pairs, never singles, or you cause yourself more work by mismatched mothers and kids searching for each other. Be conscious of how your neighbors handle their cattle, keep an eye out for sick calves that need treated, and remember in the end it’s all about relationships so be respectful of one another.  

Some things have improved. Our crew on Saturday included Gary at 70 plus, the senior cowhand, and Harli, a “fuhst grader.” Harli rode with her grandma or me the afternoon we were together. We three females would not have been included in the old days. Or I dare say, even wanted.

With many hands comes light work and we gathered the high country, the low country and the in-between country in a quick hurry. Rain threatened all day but it never materialized. Just those incredible angry skies to pull our eyes to the beauty beyond the mountain tops.

I'm trying to instill a habit of saying “thank you Lord” throughout my days. Some days are better than others. Round-up day was a “better” day.  Especially since I got to cut.  

Friday, October 2, 2015


September slipped away last night. That was fast.

I read that if we want time to slow down (don’t we all?) then we need to quit rushing from one thing to another, stuffing more and more into our lives. Instead we should practice being in the moment, mindful of, and grateful for, the world right in front of us.

In hindsight that is just what Mark and I did when we drove to north Idaho to see Anna and celebrate with other aggies at the University of Idaho’s annual Ag Days festivities. It was a good excuse to give Mark’s wrists another few days to heal as well.  

The campus was wrapped in its early autumn beauty, the locusts lining sixth street in full yellow color. We attended the full slate of College of Ag activities which coincided with Dad’s weekend and state FFA competitions. Mark and Anna now have matching Gamma Phi t-shirts! We explored the pre-game event and even lucked into a couple of passes to get into the VIP box at the football game which meant food and drink and cushy seats for two.  

We planned to stay through Monday night so we set a leisurely pace. As I look back, it’s the details that come to mind. Anna brought a friend along one morning and we walked through Idler’s Rest nature preserve. It’s only 35 acres but a real gem. It’s a shady foray through cedars, pines, and firs (yes, Mark knows the difference) in stark contrast to the manicured dry farms stretching out in every direction. Both environments are majestic in their own way.  

I took in the Farmer’s Market in downtown Moscow on Saturday morning. Purple eggplants and squash of every color, fragrant basil, cheeses, something for everyone. My favorites were the end-of-season flowers.  I bought  a bouquet of everlastings to take home to our host for the weekend. Only $6.00 for a generous bunch of statice; what a buy! A loaf of artisan potato bread and berry cream cheese croissants rounded out my armful of goodies

We enjoyed the lunar eclipse on Sunday, as our hosts, Karen and Carl, prepared leg of lamb. But it was the supermoon, the harvest moon, that was even more spectacular the next night as it hung in the treetops over the rolling Palouse hills. Wow.

The drive home was mindful as well. We usually hustle home, but instead of a marathon drive we took a detour to visit the Big Hole Valley of Montana. Thirty years ago the meadows this time of year would have been filled with dozens of loose hay stacks picturesquely surrounded by pole fences. Now only a few stalwart ranchers continue the tradition. The beauty of the stacks, made more so by their rarity, was not wasted on me. We even took time to walk out across the meadows and see a beaverslide, the implement used to create the stacks and its accompanying framework up close. 

They say ranching is an art, I think they were talking about the haystacks of the Big Hole.     

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sizing up Ag

I picked apples today from an old tree in the middle of a cow pasture. I didn’t need a ladder because the loaded branches hang down to picking height. The apples are huge, a handful each. And there’s hardly any worm holes! Whatever the variety, it is a hardy one for sure. It might not win any modern taste test, but will do nicely for apple pie filling. 

We graze cattle in this pasture spring and fall. And during the winter I maneuver the hay truck around the tree feeding the herd. I think they call that “layering” enterprises. The pasture abuts a busy county road.

We live in farming country and the roads are buzzing with trucks hauling produce this time of year. This evening it was potatoes and chopped corn silage. As the big trucks rumbled by, I wondered if they noticed me immersed in my bucolic enterprise of picking apples. One might say it’s “Big Ag” meets “Small Ag.” One might also say that those two are at odds with one another, but I hope not.

I read a headline the other day, Big Food is Losing, Penberthy, E. (2015, Sept.). Sound Consumer. But as I read the article, the main point was that consumers want to know what’s in their food. Large manufacturers and mega-restaurants like McDonalds and Subway are looking for alternatives to artificial ingredients. Subway, for instance, will cease using artificial yellow dye on its sweet peppers and will use turmeric instead. (I know, right. Why not just let them be their natural color?) Anyway, I think it’s a good thing. We could all do with more real food. And yes, small farms probably do more to promote real food, but does big food have to lose for little food to win?

In our community, whether big or small agriculture, we all provide needed diversity. If you enjoy wildlife, you’ll appreciate that pheasants and partridges find brush cover in our calving pastures, and that song birds build nests in the trees along our canal. Pavement to pavement tillage provides little in the way of wildlife habitat. 

On the other hand, our community relies on these large efficient farms for economic stability. When cattle prices are low, potatoes, milk, sugar beets or wheat revenues are hopefully high, which means money still flows into our ag-based economy.

We ranchers benefit from our farming neighbors by purchasing wheat straw, an affordable feed source for cows, on off-years in potato rotations. When the dairies can't use rained on hay, the beef cows clean that up as well. 

Small hog and sheep producers put great 4-H livestock in the pipeline and provide quality local meat for the community. We have a couple of fantastic local truck farms where I pick my own freezing corn. Stopping by Grove City Gardens with your kids to gather vegetables for supper is an honest education for everyone.

Community Supported Agriculture doesn't only mean a box of vegeys a week, it means a community thankful for the many attributes the diverse world of agriculture provides

Can we decide to set aside food fights? Big or small, industrial or artisanal, local or imported, they all have their attributes and their drawbacks. Let’s keep the conversation where it needs to be - sustainability, soil health, clean and healthy food, strong economies and education.

Sounds like a good discussion to have over pie!

Sunday, September 13, 2015


The last of my hero uncles died last week. Wallace, at 86, was the youngest of five brothers who lived their lives within 10 miles of one another and had their own mutual admiration society.

Wallace (Wally) lived a short walk from us. He was a happy, friendly sort and the most outspoken of the five sons born to my grandparents. He was a farmer and a rancher like his dad. He lived with vigor and passed with honor.

Eldro (El), the eldest and a dairy farmer, lived the furthest away and we didn’t see him often, not near enough to suit my Dad. Eldro wore a small mustache and had the tall carriage and warm manner of his brothers.    

Vincent (Vin) lived just a mile away. He was a dear man, a little more fun loving than my dad and could be counted on to pull our sleds behind his pickup on snowy winter days and even when he was an old timer in our eyes, actually got in the pool with us on our annual Downata Hot Springs excursions!

Douglass (Doug) was equally dedicated to family and having no wife or kids himself, he cared for our grandmother Mimi until she died at age 89. He was a man of the land as his brothers were, but showed it by growing flowers instead of crops. He alternately teased and spoiled us.  

My Dad was the quiet one, devoted to Mom and us kids, he passed his unobtrusive ways on to my sisters and me.  

They were all tall, dark and handsome. They loved us dearly and we cousins (there were 18 of us) grew up in a cocoon that we didn’t fully appreciate until much later when we were making our way in the world.   

When my husband Mark learned of Wallace’s death, he said, “and then there were none.” And none seems forlorn indeed. My cousins and I look at each other now, a little shell-shocked, to consider that it’s our turn. How do we measure up? Do we accept the mantle of family leadership with any semblance of the respect we had for these men?  

I’m not sure, but I think I can see marks of their integrity and honor in my cousins and siblings. Cindy showed her calm and resoluteness during the final days of Wallace’s life and throughout the funeral. Ginger fusses over the extended family with love, handing out heaping doses of guidance. Paul is soft and kind, putting others ahead of himself. Janene, my oldest sister, is a model of service. And that’s just for starters.

We’ll do okay, we had good teachers.

Doug, Wallace, Vin, Eldro, Fred
Movie star quality - right?

Sharing a laugh at their childhood home
Fred (my dad), Wallace, Vin and Doug
already missing Eldro

Monday, September 7, 2015

Simply September

The change is upon us. Cooler weather is here to stay.

During the summer we leave our windows open all night. We close everything up tight by 8:00 am and the house stays cool all day. But by August’s end the windows stay shut. One chilly morning seeing Mark frying bacon in his winter coat was the last of that!

Am I the only one who has a running love affair with September? Hardly. But that’s what it feels like - a ranch wife's month of treasures. It’s the time of year when the contrast of green and gold is our world. Irrigated pastures with their shiny leaves of regrowth lopping over in rich clumps, abutting mellow cured-off grasses along the perimeter.  

The wind blew all day yesterday. Afraid that the ditches might be filling with tumbling mustard plants, I made a run just at dusk to check the pipes for clogs. As I walked the ditches carrying my pitchfork, the sky over the Blackfoot River Mountains streaked pink, then lavender, then as quickly faded to gray, just for my viewing pleasure.  

The bright yellow blossoms of tansy that line the ditch banks are turning to rust. The garden is overrun with weeds. The first spud harvester of the season hogged the roadway on my way home. Rabbitbrush dot the sandhills with color. It must be fall.

Mark and I spent a day in the mountains checking cows and monitoring the stockwell. The word “shameful” came to mind seeing all that grass and knowing our ranching neighbors in Western Idaho are suffering the effects of wildfire.

Our son, Seth, spent a couple of weeks working from home at his new agriculture consulting job and helped us on his off-time. He helped me gather cockleburs in the Gardner ditch one evening, joined his Dad and Grandpa working on a new water project, and came to our rescue when we desperately needed his young, strong muscles to clear a plugged irrigation pipe.

He loves September as I do and hated to leave to head back to South Carolina where he’s based temporarily. We made a quick fly-fishing run to the south fork of the Snake River one evening. I read a book on the bank and he lost himself on the river. Quiet and oh so Septemberesque.

Maybe “shameful” isn’t the word for it after all, maybe “blessed” will do.  

cocklebur bouquet

a tough clog

tansy, cures everything from worms to gout! 

rabbitbrush in bloom
a cowboy and a fisherman

Monday, August 24, 2015

Couple Time

We thought when Mark got his cast off it would mean he could use his wrist again. Nope, not so lucky. The doctor put on a splint and gave him explicit instructions. “No loading!” I had to ask him,  “What about shoveling? Pushing? Pulling?” Nope, it all counts as loading. Mark looked askance at the doctor and said, “but that’s my life.”

And it gets worse. His other wrist needed a splint too with the same accompanying instructions. The doc thinks it’s a partially torn tendon and may not heal as well as the other fractured wrist, especially if he isn't careful to “not load” it.

Then to top it off, Jesse got bucked off a few days after Mark and broke three ribs! Groan.

So anyway, we’re getting by. The biggee this time of year is flood irrigating. I've been going with Mark on his route every day and am getting pretty good at setting dams and pulling ornery tins. I do exactly what he says. (For a change!) Each ditch has a different character. Some are silt and you can just tuck the edge of the dam in with a dull shovel. Others are flat and wide and pure sand and you need to dig all along the edge and place shovelfuls of sand on top of it. Some are too deep to stand in and you have to straddle them. And to replace the tumbleweeds of this spring, we've now got tumbling mustard that collects in wads that need pitched.     

It’s obvious the job is geared up for a strong man, not a woman. At least not a woman of my bench pressing ability. I'm sure the newly anointed women Rangers could do it without a hitch, but not me. I get it done, though, with some cheaters along the way. I can usually use a lever apparatus of some kind to get the tin headgates open. To haul dams I hoist one end on Mark’s shoulder and put the other end on my shoulder. That works pretty good.

I enjoy most of it. Flood irrigating is such healthy work. It's an obstacle course - jump ditches, climb sidehills, lift with your legs, tug, pitch, shovel - and lots of walking. There's pheasants to flush, deer to spy, weeds to pull and abundant grass to wade through. We took a walk through one of the windbreaks one evening eating buffalo berries. It's a great way to see the ranch.

It’s been an eye-opener for both of us. We depend on Mark’s physical abilities to run this ranch. What would we do if he had been hurt worse? What will we do when age becomes a factor? It makes you feel pretty vulnerable. Of course everyone who gets hurt or has other health issues finds out the same thing. We take our health for granted.

Mark is realizing (I hope) that some things he puts up with need a design change. Maybe he could re-do the concrete checks so that someone of lesser strength could operate them? Maybe a makeshift lever on every sticky headgate would be a good thing. Maybe the dam poles don’t need to be so “dam” heavy!

The other thing that weighs on my mind is the number of hours Mark puts in doing physical labor. He’s got so many gifts to share with the world. Is shoveling for hours a day worth the cost? Is our old-timey method of irrigation still viable? It's lo-input yes - on everything but the operator. These are tough questions we grapple with, then fall comes and the urgency fades until spring.   

I know it’s been hard for Mark. He walks around in a gloomy state, but mostly I’m feeling blessed. He didn’t get hurt worse. His concussion has healed. What if his wrists hadn’t taken part of the brunt of the fall? What then?

We got this.

yes, it held

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Back to School

August is an annual reality check. All those projects you had planned for the summer? Well . . . they probably didn’t get done and by now you know they won’t. Does it really matter?

On the other hand, some things do matter. Mark and I have a goal of “wine at nine” on the terrace. It doesn't happen often, but it’s grand when it does. We look at Higham’s Peak in the distance and watch the willows sway against the breeze. We might hear the squawk of a rooster pheasant or the scree of a hawk. Last night a great horned owl swooped down and gathered herself onto the limb of a cottonwood. And if we stay late enough we'll see bats dart under the eaves.

It’s a monarch butterfly year. And hummingbirds! They love the coneflowers and salvia. The songbirds are dwindling for the season. That makes me sad.   

I’ve been canning green beans. Mark and the kids love them. They’re comfort food in our house and make beef and potatoes a real winter meal.   

Our hired boys - young men I should say – have gone back to college. We hated to see them go. Anna came and went, only spending about a week at home.  

I remember this feeling.

It happened every year after the 4-H fair. We had been super busy helping the kids with their steer and horse projects. They had been leading their steers, grooming and bathing them, feeding them twice daily. They were working their horses regularly. The saddles had been soaped and oiled, the blankets washed. They had gone round and round the arena practicing for the horse show. Then the fair was over and the steers were gone and the horses back in the pasture; their shiny coats and blackened hooves dusty once more. School was just around the corner. A few more days to relish . . . and cherish.

Mark helped Anna change the oil in her car before she left. Someday hopefully a good man will do it for her, but for now she’s learning about self-reliance and the value of maintenance – to secure the drip pan before she loosens the plug, to write down her mileage for future reference.

Then she was off. Headed down the gravel lane once more. 

It's not that August is necessarily melancholic. Bittersweet is a better word. It's abundant and rich with the season's bounty, but poignant in its transition between now and what comes next.  

The next day Mark and I spent the day in the hills, just the two of us. We didn’t have much to talk about, pretty quiet. We brought two bulls home, put out salt and marveled over the amount of feed in front of the cows. We came home to rain.

There’s a line from the movie On Golden Pond that fits August pretty well. Katherine Hepburn is talking to her daughter Cheltzey, played by Jane Fonda. She is scolding her, admonishing her (a woman of about 50 herself) to finally forgive her 80-year-old ailing father played by Henry Fonda. Hepburn makes it clear that she needs to grow up and leave her childish behavior behind. 

Time marches on, Cheltz. I suggest you get on with it.”

Re-reading grandma Mimi's 1958 self-help book 

I love seeing these guys

green bean extravaganza

sans coveralls

it's quiet all right

Thursday, August 6, 2015

July Photo Opp

The weather continues to be unsettled - thundershowers, hail, or like today, sunny, muggy and warm. We’ve had nothing as hot as the first week of July. And of course these lovely Idaho nights are cool and comfortable.

We’ve been focused on Mark for the last week since he got bucked off Jane in the mountains. She touched a hot wire with her nose and went ballistic. Mark couldn’t get a good hold on the reins and scared her further by being in and out of the saddle while she jumped. A concussion and one (maybe two) broken wrists later he is healing little by little. Our hired boys only have a few more days with us so Mark's getting all the good out of them he can.

Before Mark’s wreck we had a quiet day hosting a photographer from our marketing cooperative, Country Natural Beef. Lynn Howlett,, showed up one afternoon while Mark was cutting hay. Not thinking swathing was much of a photo subject, I sent him over anyway, only to have him get some great shots of Mark holding a baby meadowlark that had flown out of the hay. Mark picked up the youngster and tucked him in a windrow a few rows away and under cover from the circling hawks. His mother was chirping nearby.

Then the next morning Lynn accompanied us to move the replacement heifers to a new paddock. We stopped at grandma Bonny’s on the way to get a generation skipping photo. She’s a good sport, even though at 96, not exactly excited to pose for a photograph. 

What we ended up with was a typical ranch day's smattering of images. Cattle and horses, grass, a little wildlife and some simple folk that live on the land. Images made memorable by the hands of a professional. I wasn't so sure to begin with though.  

Mark has taught me (is teaching me still) that good enough is good enough. His favorite line is “things are seldom ideal.” Might as well get on with it. And that’s how it was with the photo shoot. I would have preferred the kids were home as they make such beautiful, youthful figures on horseback. I would have preferred to travel to our range ground to get some spectacular scenery as a backdrop. Of course I would have preferred looking twenty years younger too, but that didn’t happen either. Still, the photos are fun, and in 10 years when the faces of family and our animal helpers have changed, they will be priceless.   

When we finished, I grabbed Lynn’s camera and did a turn-around on him. He called it “a gift” because he’s always on the other side of the lens.