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