The mystique of farming

Farming has, recently, become the recipient of a mystique.

I wish I could put my finger on just how a profession in which you work hard for long hours in a risky business that doesn’t pay very well came to acquire a mystique, because if I knew how that process worked, perhaps I could acquire a mystique for myself. After 54 mystique-free years, I’m good and ready.

For most of human history, farming was simply something you had to do in order to eat. The drudgery and sweat were part of the human condition. Now, though, not a day goes by when I don’t read about how important it is to protect farmers’ livelihoods. Granted, I spend a disproportional amount of my day reading about agriculture, but I’m betting that even normal people, who read about politics and literature and fashion and inter-species animal friendships, come across the importance of farmers’ livelihoods from time to time.

Because farmers are the salt of the earth. Farmers provide sustenance. Farmers engage in the noble profession of coaxing life from the earth, and they do it because they are driven to make this their life’s work. Not all farmers, mind you – the kind of farmers who drive big, expensive combines and grow a lot of corn and soy are excluded. Mystique is reserved for small farmers, with less – and less expensive – equipment, who grow crops that end up on your dinner table more or less intact, and never find their way into cars and pigs and Twinkies.

If you’re in doubt about the nobility of those farmers, just ask Wendell Berry: “Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: Love. They must do it for love.”

This idea seems to be surprisingly popular, given that it is utter bullshit. My husband and I grow oysters, and we sure as hell don’t do it for love. We do it for money.

As for mystique? Getting up at 4:30 to catch an early tide and do four hours of bending, lifting, scooping, sorting, carrying, and distributing a crop that might as well be so many rocks certainly doesn’t feel mystique-y in the moment.

The last three days, Kevin and I had to take over 400 onion bags filled with oysters, open them, and distribute them evenly in 400 trays (for the larger oysters) and 250 stiff mesh bags (for the smaller ones). It’s manual labor, from start to finish.

If you’ve never done repetitive manual labor (and I never had, until Kevin decided he wanted to be an oyster farmer), it’s exertion interspersed with problem-solving of the most prosaic kind. How do you open an onion bag so that, when you pour the oysters out, they don’t get caught in the corners? (Cutting the bottom seam from edge to edge seems to work best.) Is it easier to scoop oysters when the big plastic box you’re scooping from is mostly full, or mostly empty? (Mostly empty, because if the tip of the scoop hits the plastic bottom, you can slide it under the pile more easily.) Is it easier to bring the job to the boat, or the boat to the job? What equipment do I need to make sure I’m working at counter height, and not bending over? Does it make sense for Kevin and me to each do one-half the tasks involved in the job, and work together, or each do the whole job, and work separately? And on and on and on.

Kevin loading equipment on the boat as the water comes in

Kevin loading equipment on the boat as the water comes in

Don’t get me wrong. I find this interesting and even satisfying. My journalist day job often requires me to think about food and agriculture in a big, broad way: how can we feed nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously? To switch focus to finding the exact right size bucket to hold 250 oysters is a refreshing change. There is pleasure in doing a job efficiently and well, even if that job is just dumping rocks into trays.

And there is, at least for me, truth in the idea that it is gratifying to grow food. Kevin and I are very proud of our crop, and it makes us happy to know how much people enjoy eating it. But the idea that we’d do it for love is laughable.

It’s worse than that. It’s dangerous. If nourishing is noble but earning is ignoble, we don’t stand a chance of getting food policy right. We run the risk of protecting subsistence-farming livelihoods even when those subsistence farmers would rather be doing something else. We run the risk of demonizing successful farmers. We run the risk of providing incentives for practices that increase food prices, like working at small scale with few machines.

Kevin and I work at small scale with few machines (and produce a commensurately expensive product), and I sure hope there’s a place for that kind of farm in the food system that feeds nine billion people responsibly and nutritiously. But there’s just nothing romantic about labor that’s heavy and dirty and repetitive and sometimes dangerous, done day in and day out because you have no other choice.

The best way to take the mystique out of farming is to farm. The second best way, I’m hoping, is to ask nicely.

Rural hospitality

There are a lot of reasons I don’t play as much golf as I’d like, and most of them are dull, dull, dull.

We’re too busy. I didn’t get around to making a tee time, and now it’s too late. My game is so rusty that I’m embarrassed to play with strangers. From years of disuse, my golf shoes have deteriorated beyond recovery.

But now I have a much more interesting reason, a reason Kevin and I discovered when we went in the garden shed to retrieve a cooler.

The coolers live in the garden shed, as do many other non-garden-related items like lawn chairs, bicycles, and golf bags. But it used to have a lot of gardening stuff in it (until Kevin converted the hoophouse into a bigger, better gardening shed), and we can’t just call it the shed because we have what may be a record-setting number of sheds scattered around the property, and we need to be more specific. Garden shed it is.

There we were, in the garden shed, choosing the appropriately sized cooler and lamenting the fact that, despite our best varmint-proofing efforts, there was clear scatological evidence, everywhere, that varmints had won this round.

The small cooler, we decided, and were brushing off said scatological evidence when we heard a rustle. And then a rustle rustle.

And then something small, gray, and furry ran out of my golf bag, which was hanging on the wall. As it darted up the wall, Spiderman-style, another one came out. And then a third. They all ran up the wall, and across the ceiling to the other side, where they took shelter on a ledge over the window.

flying squirrel (3)

Kevin and I looked at each other “What ARE those things?”

You live in a place for nearly a decade, and you think you know your wildlife. We’ve seen foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and opossums, with the occasional wild turkey. We’ve got varied bird life, and an near-annual sighting of a giant snapping turtle named Osha. And, in the small-mammal category, we have voles, squirrels, chipmunks, and rats.

These guys were definitely in the small-mammal category, but equally definitely not voles, squirrels, chipmunks, or rats. We were very surprised to see a small mammal we didn’t recognize. The specimens that came out of my golf bag are bigger than chipmunks, but smaller than squirrels, with gray fur and a white underbelly. They have a flat tail, big eyes, and they’re very very cute.

Fortunately, the nice lady at Mahoney’s garden store, where we bought the three Asian pear trees we planted for Arbor Day, did recognize it. “That’s a flying squirrel,” she told Kevin, who showed her a slightly fuzzy picture he took with his phone.

This presents a problem. If there are adult flying squirrels in my golf bag in May, what are the odds that there are also baby flying squirrels? It is mating season, which argues for it, but there are at least three adults, which may – or may not – argue against it. I’m not sufficiently up on flying squirrel domestic arrangements to know.

If there are baby flying squirrels in my golf bag, I don’t want to kill them. Not that I don’t have a bone to pick with the whole clan, what with all that scatological evidence. But if we have a provided a home for a small mammal we’d never seen before, I don’t want to evict a whole family of them until after any babies are ready to support themselves.

Well, my clubs needed new grips anyway. And the bag has got to be over ten years old. The faint odor of urine in the shed is a good sign that all will need to be replaced.

On the plus side, though, when you ask me whether I want to play a round of golf, I get to say, “I’m afraid I can’t. There are flying squirrels nesting in my golf bag.”

Vegan recipe APB

Everyone who knows my husband, and almost everyone who knows of him, knows that he is hopelessly, irredeemably, unapologetically carnivorous. He eats meat or fish every day, often more than once, and he supplements it with plenty of butter and cheese.  He is fond of saying, when a salad is put in front of him, “this is the food that my food eats.”

So you can imagine my surprise when, a couple months back, he said, apropos of nothing: “I think I want to try going vegan for a month.”

I stopped what I was doing (chopping onions, it was), and looked at him, trying to process this. Generally, I’m pretty adept at the back-and-forth of conversation, but this had me drawing a blank. Kevin? Vegan?

“Who are you and what have you done with me husband?”

But it was Kevin, and he wanted to try going vegan for a month. He harbored a suspicion that his rampant carnivorousness wasn’t doing his health any good, and he wanted to see if he felt better eating less meat and more plants.

Now, if I wanted to see if I felt better eating less meat and more plants, I would eat less meat and more plants. But Kevin has an all-or-nothing approach to the world that I don’t share, and it’s easier for him to kick off this experiment by cutting out all animal products than it is for him to just rejigger the balance.

Vegan it would be. For the month of March. I was in.

kale

I wasn’t all in. I like having cream in my coffee, and yogurt in my smoothies, and I wasn’t inclined to give those things up. Besides, Kevin and I rarely eat breakfast and lunch together, as I tend to get up earlier than he does, and we’re generally on different schedules. But we eat dinner together every night, and we both thought this would be a great opportunity to expand our veg-based culinary repertoire, and maybe even lose a few pounds. I could muster some enthusiasm for that plan.

But then the other shoe dropped. “And I think I’ll cut out alcohol, too,” Kevin said.

Seems to me that, if ever a month needed alcohol, it’s the month you’re going vegan. This was beyond the pale.

“But alcohol’s vegan!” I protested. In fact, on the list of vegan things that are wonderful, wine has to be Number One. Beer is probably fighting it out with chocolate for Number Two, although mangoes could be in the running. I pointed this out to Kevin, but he was immovable. Vegan and alcohol-free it was.

Today is Day 6. I was at a conference for two of those days, and I don’t adhere to the regimen when I’m not home. So far, I’ve been almost-vegan for all of three days. I made a nice mushroom-barley soup the first day, and a big bowl of stir-fried tofu and vegetables with peanut sauce last night. In between, Kevin made a curry with potatoes, cauliflower, and coconut milk.

It’s been fine, so far, although a little humbling. Yesterday afternoon, I wandered the aisles of my local Stop & Shop, where I have shopped almost daily for the best part of a decade, and tried to find the tofu. In all those years, I had never once bought it. Not only did I not know where it was, I was too embarrassed to ask the nice people who work at the market, because I couldn’t even narrow the search down to department. Was it in with the refrigerated salsas in the produce department? With the eggs? With the cheese? In with the pickles and specialty deli items? No clue. Eventually, I discovered it in the “Nature’s Promise” section of the store, where they house the organic and gluten-free and grass-fed things.

So I found it, but then I had to cook it. I pressed out some of the water, cubed it and coated it in corn starch, and put it in a hot oily wok. It was OK, combined with the vegetables and peanut sauce (I do make a mean peanut sauce), but it wasn’t nice and crispy, the way I wanted it to be.

The bottom line here, Starving readers, is that I need your help. I can cruise the interwebs endlessly, looking for vegan recipes, but I think I’d do better to ask you: What is your favorite vegan dish?

Thanks in advance for helping. If I don’t get better at this, it’s going to be a long March.

In for the winter

Whew. That’s done.

It’s one of the biggest jobs of the year, and it’s done. The oyster seed is in the cooler.

This year, we had twice as much seed as we’ve ever had, and so the job was twice as big. More than twice as big, actually, because it was a terrific growing year in Barnstable Harbor, and what started as about 150 pounds of 10-millimeter oysters turned into some 6,000 pounds of one- to nearly three-inch oysters.

oyster-growth

Those of you following along at home may remember the last really big job we did, which was putting that seed out. We did it in two stages, with 200,000 going out in mid-June and another 100,000, from another source, in early August.

Those 300,000 spent the summer and fall eating and growing, growing and eating. But they have to spend the winter indoors.d

Barnstable Harbor becomes inhospitable to oysters – and to aquaculture – in the winter. Because the area we farm is intertidal, the oysters are out of the water for several hours, twice a day. If temperatures are cold enough to freeze them, and then they get knocked around by an incoming tide, they can die.

Grow-out bags on top of trays

Grow-out bags on top of trays

But then there’s ice. Giant sheets of it often form in the harbor, and they can sweep all your equipment, oysters included, off to Portugal.

When it’s cold, oysters go dormant, living off the stores they laid in during the nutrient-rich warmer months, so they can live in cold water or cold air equally well. So we bring them in. All 300,000 of them.

Staging the bagged seed

Staging the bagged seed

The process starts with transferring the oysters from the grow-out bags – stiff mesh bags about four feet by a foot and a half – into onion bags. The oysters take up much less room in the cooler that way and, when we put them back out in the spring, they can grow in the onion bags until they’re big enough to graduate to open trays.

Here are the steps involved in the transfer:

Unclip the two clips, one at the top of the bag and one at the bottom, that hold it on to the tray it sits on.

Carry the bag to the boat, or the station we’ve set up for pouring and bagging.

Remove the top clip.

Cut off the zip tie that keeps the slide (a piece of PVC pipe that holds the bag closed) on the bag.

Take off the slide.

Pour the oysters into the onion bag (we do this using a concrete footing form that doubles as a kind of funnel).

Cinch the onion bag, cut the drawstring, and tie it tightly closed.

Once that’s done, each bag has to be carried to a staging area, where we pile them all in preparation for bringing them in. We do that 427 times, with bags that weigh between ten and twenty pounds.

When we’ve done all 427 bags, it’s time to bring them in. In previous years, with smaller crops, we’ve done this all in our boat, a 17-foot Carolina Skiff. Because our crop was so much bigger, we knew it would take more than one trip, even in a larger boat. For Day One, we borrowed a 28-foot version to do the 200,000 from June.

Me and about 4500 pounds of oysters.

Me and about 4500 pounds of oysters.

Kevin and I recruited our friend Don to help, and we took the boat out as the water was coming in. The job is easier if you can bring the boat to the oysters, rather than having to bring the oysters to the boat. We floated the boat between the two rows where we’d staged the bags, and loaded them in as we went.

At the dock, we loaded them from the boat to the truck and landscape trailer. At the cooler we unloaded them to the pallets, about 100 bags per. The pallets are then wrapped to keep the stack stable, covered with burlap, and topped with ice. They go in a shipping container, with temperature regulated by a refrigeration unit and snow or ice, periodically added. We borrow cooler space from our friends at Cape Cod Oyster, whose business is so much larger than ours that 300,000 seed is an afterthought for them.

The remaining 100,000, which were substantially smaller since they went in the water six weeks later, Kevin and our occasional helper Sebastien were able to get in our boat. They went in the cooler this morning.

Total, that’s about 6,000 pounds. Each bag lifted from tray to pouring station, from pouring station to staging area, from staging area to boat, from boat to truck, and from truck to pallet. Moving 6,000 pounds five times is a big job.

Although there’s still work to be done in the form of a couple hundred trays that have to come in, too, we always breathe a sigh of relief when the seed is in the cooler. All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed for survival. If all goes as planned, 2017 will be the best year we’ve ever had.

Happy new year!

Happy new year!

This is a dead deer. Don’t look away.

I have a bone to pick with you.

With some of you, at any rate.  Specifically, those of you  who object to articles about killing animals and photos of those animals, killed.

I kill animals. Over the past several years, my husband, Kevin, and I have killed most of the meat we eat. We have raised and slaughtered pigs, turkeys, ducks, and chickens here at home. In the wild, we’ve caught fish and shot deer.

I’ve written about it, and I’ve heard from readers with all varieties of objections. Some of those objections are to the killing of animals, and those I understand. Vegans, you’re entitled to object because you’ve taken a principled stand against killing. I don’t agree with you (obviously), but I respect the principle and will happily engage in a (civil) conversation about animals’ role in our food supply.

It’s you meat-eaters that don’t have a leg to stand on. And neither do you vegetarians, since eggs and milk exist only because the males are eaten (as in milk) or destroyed (as in eggs)

Every time I write about killing, I hear from someone who believes that the death of animals should simply be kept out of sight. Civilized people shouldn’t have to open their newspaper to hunting stories, or their Facebook feed to dead deer pictures.

And boy does that piss me off.

You know what happens when you keep the death of animals out of sight? Those horrifying videos of animals being mistreated at farms and slaughterhouses is what. It is because we want our meat in nice little cubes, unidentifiable as the animal of origin, that we have built a food system that pays insufficient attention to the humane treatment of livestock. That is what we get when we just don’t want to know. This is what we get when we insist on looking away.

We need to stop looking away. And so I am posting this picture of one of the deer I shot on the hunting trip Kevin and I took to Virginia. See that red hole? That’s the exit wound made by a .270 rifle bullet. The shot isn’t perfect – ideally, it would have been a little lower and a little farther back – but the deer dropped where she stood and died in the 30 seconds or so it took me to reach her.

doe16-2I want you to look. And I want you to call the desire to look away by its proper name: cowardice.

Nobody likes to think about the cute furry animal getting shot, but human existence – even vegan existence — is an animal-killing enterprise. We kill them to eat them, sure, but we also kill them when we build cities on their habitat, or we run them over with cars or combines, or we poison them to keep them out of the grain stores.

The best we can do isn’t not killing; it’s killing carefully and judiciously. To insure that’s what’s happening, we all have to look. We have to conquer our squeamishness and face it head-on. And we – and, by ‘we,’ I mean ‘you’ – certainly can’t try and turn that squeamishness into a virtue by asserting it as an elevated sensibility, a delicate and refined sensibility that is offended by blood and death.

If you don’t want to face the death of the animals you eat, you’re not an aesthete, you’re a coward.

So, look. Teach your kids to look. Visit a farm. Meet the animal that will be your pork chop or pot roast. Now that few of us kill for our own larders, maybe a slaughterhouse should be a standard senior-class high school field trip.

Learning to kill the animals I eat has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I don’t enjoy it. But I decided that I wanted to take responsibility for my food, and I made myself learn. Kevin helped me. We learned together, and I couldn’t have done it without him. And, because we learned, we drove home from Virginia yesterday with enough venison to feed us for a year.

We’ll be eating deer that lived excellent deery lives, ending in a death easier than the one they’d have experienced by predation or starvation. By taking methane-producing ruminants out of the system, we’re cutting down on greenhouse gases. By culling an overpopulated herd, we’re upping the chances that the remaining deer will live well, without overrunning their environment.

If you don’t want to look, by all means head to your supermarket for your cubes. Pick up some cupcakes while you’re there. But don’t congratulate yourself on how civilized you are. Civilized means caring about the animals that die for you. Civilized means knowing the provenance of your meat. Civilized means not looking away.