I don’t claim to be an artist.

Artistry (to my mind) implies a mastery of form or movement. It implies years of practice and concentration added to copious natural talent. It implies deep understanding and a uniqueness of vision or thought.

It also implies beauty, of one kind or another. When someone says “he has mastered the art of farming”, they mean that the individual has developed such a great intimacy and appreciation of the tasks involved in farming that their work has become beautiful. Not just their work, but their farm as well. The flow of beauty between art and artist is not entirely clear, but there is certainly a connecting depth which empowers not only master and craft, but anyone near enough to feel the effects of that relationship.

While pruning the blueberries, blackberries, and apples this winter I have come to realize that even the simple snip of the shears can become an artistic enterprise.

Each tree or bush requires specific attention. Each is unique and full of potential. When I make a cut I have to hold in mind the longevity of the plant as well as its current status. What do I want this plant to look like this year? What do I want this plant to look like in 5 years? 10? The long term health and shape is as important as the fruit producing capacity this year. Maybe I have to sacrifice a cane that looks particularly promising for this year’s crop in favor of one that looks more beneficial in the long run.

It’s also important to analyze the current plant health. I’ll remove any damaged canes and look for signs of disease or damaging bugs. I will also take care to notice other things about the plant like how many primocanes it produced, how the trunk or base appears, and the look of soil surrounding the roots.

Sometimes I realize that I’m not sure exactly what to look for or what certain signs mean. Sometimes I make cuts or lop off branches that I regret a moment later because they make the tree look odd or I see a branch that would have been a better choice. I know that artistry in pruning comes after many years. Years that allow practice and years that uncover the truth about my decisions. (You don’t always know if you made good pruning choices until a couple years down the road).

I have noticed that after a long day pruning one kind of plant, it begins to get easier. Just like you might improve your drawing skills if you drew the same kind of picture over and over for hour. By the end of a day of pruning each decision comes more quickly and more easily.

When I close my eyes now I can see a young blueberry bush, bare still of its leaves, branching out in just the right way. I can see the way it wants to grow. I can see its present and its future, full and green. I can make a few quick cuts and see it open up, fill out, let in the sunlight and breeze. Maybe there is a little more beauty for that.

Cheers,

Sweetbread

If you’re looking for more concrete pruning advice Michael Phillips’ book: The Holistic Orchard is a great place to start. The NC Extension Service is also a wonderful resource with online content and agents who are more than willing to answer questions.

The website is here: http://mecklenburg.ces.ncsu.edu/2010/03/pruning-3/

Spring is here!

Flowers are blooming, trees are budding, the weather is warming… but more than anything else, the sign that indicates spring’s arrival is that we finally moved our pigs out of the barn and onto pasture!

There is a long tradition of herding animals in this area. The old Drover’s Road comes right through the farm. Farmers from the West drove their mules, pigs, turkeys, and cows to eastern markets along what is now 74-A. The house that my great grandparents bought when they moved to Fairview in 1916 was actually an old Inn. Fairview is about a day’s walk from the city, perfectly situated for the drovers who were pushing their way east.

One thing I will say about days spent herding pigs: It’s not easy. I have so much respect for those farmers who were driving their animals hundreds of miles. We only herd our pigs several hundred yards. We set up fences and gates to keep them from taking off wherever they please. We make sure to have people ready to block off routes that look enticing. And, even with all those precautions in place, we have plenty of disasters.

Pigs are smart. Once they learn a fence line (especially an electric line where they’ve experienced a good shock) they are loathe to cross it. Our herd has been in the barn all winter, enjoying deep bedded warmth in a small and well defined area. The most difficult part of herding them to new pasture is getting them out of the barn. They know their space, they have rooted right to the edge of the fence line and made the contours their own. When we take the fence down, they can still see the line where their rooting stops. They know from experience that they shouldn’t cross that line.

One trick we learned that helps us get the herd over that mark is to spread fresh hay on either side. This disguises the line and the pigs also like to root in it, searching for food or anything else exciting (pigs find a lot of mundane things exciting… bits of wood, rubber, metal, basically anything they can gnaw on). Once they’ve crossed the threshold, they are perfectly willing to go as far as their chubby legs can carry them.

This week, when we moved the herd out the barn, our biggest issue was that one group moved out over tate line quickly but a second group was more obstinate. Pigs are not like cows. They don’t have the same strong herd mentality. One group took off toward greener pastures while the rest refused to leave their home of the past four months. Zach had to sprint off after the first group and herd them into the corral while Walker and I stayed back to watch the second bunch. Eventually we had to grab several unused metal gates and use them like plows to slowly push the pigs out over the line. Once they crossed it, they ceased to have any qualms about leaving the barn. From there out it was as simple as stopping traffic along Sugar Hollow to allow the porky fellows to make their way to the corral and rejoin the herd

It feels great to see the pigs out in the pasture, happily rooting through dirt and grass, stretching their legs in the wide open space. I also like joining in the tradition of the drovers. I am glad that our route only takes us down the road a little ways and not over mountains and across hundreds of miles of rugged terrain. Hats off to the drovers. They must have known their animals well by the end of a trip like that.

Happy springing,

Sweetbread.

Chicks arrive via the post office!

Capricious March weather means lots of layers and a steady stream of hot tea and coffee when available. The one place on the farm that will be consistently warm over the next few weeks is our baby chick brooder!

250 yellow fluff balls arrived at the Fairview Post Office this morning. We had to clear out the brooder and put in a nest of fresh hay for the little guys’ home for the next few weeks. It’s always difficult to tell how March weather will affect our first batch of chickens.

Last year we scheduled our first group of chicks just two weeks earlier, at the end of February. While they were fine in the brooder, once we moved them out onto pasture the weather turned nasty. We had several frigid March weeks full of sleet and snow. Because our birds are pasture raised and we have a system set up that doesn’t have a lot of provisions for cold weather, we lost far too many chickens to the freezing temperatures. Chickens will crowd together in the cold to share body heat but they are overzealous in their push for warmth and often smother several of their fellow birds during a frosty night.

Unfortunately for us, Walker decided to go on a two week Vacation to Germany that coincided exactly with our chicken debacle. Jake (the intern at the time) and I had to deal with the daily frustration of frozen fowl without the reassurance of our fearless farm manager. Every morning was the same. We’d slosh our way up the pasture to the house and peer gloomily inside. If there was a dark mass of birds in a corner of the structure, it meant that several had been smothered. We would tally up our losses and make a report of how many we had lost that day, each time bemoaning the dwindling number that would be left for our customers.

We were beginning to give up hope for that first batch, to the point that I remember sending Walker emails apologizing for the fact that we probably would lose the entire group in his absence. The damage wasn’t quite has bad as we’d anticipated but, but the time we sent that first group of broilers to the processor, they were a bedraggled and scrawny few.

We pushed our schedule back for this year in hopes that we won’t run into this problem again, but it’s difficult to tell when winter will release Fairview from its grasp entirely. In any case, the babies are cozy and dry for now, cheeping happily in their new home and bathing in the warmth from the heat lamps. By the time they go out on pasture,  I hope all the vestiges of cold have vanished. I hope the winds are warm, the sun bright, and the nights balmy. I hope spring comes in earnest!

best,

Sweetbread

Warm and Happy to be out of the box!