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The Sanctuary of the Barn

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A great story going around is about some Amish boys who found a novel way to make a little extra money. Their barn is the traditional kind, of course, with stables and hay mows and even dovecotes. Pigeons or rock doves have from time immemorial been a part of barnyard farming because they provide an economical source of squab or what my mother called pigeon pot pie, plus some fly control, and if you want, communication with faraway places. They can scavenge part or all of their food from the neighborhood and the barnyard itself. It seems that the pigeons in this story, that made their home in this farm’s dovecotes, had homing instinct. The Amish boys learned that a nearby game farm was buying barn pigeons to let loose as targets for would-be great white game hunters. Great white hunters are not great marksmen so they miss most of the time. The Amish boys’ pigeons flew back to their native barn and could be sold again until they died of old age. If that’s not real economy, what is?

As more people turn to small farming as a business, or just for fun, or both, they are going to experience some of the delight that those of us who grew up in farm barns cherish. And in doing so, many unforeseen advantages, like these pigeons, will occur. The local, artisanal food movement is reviving interest in all this (although I haven’t seen anyone selling pigeon pot pie yet) and therefore in smaller versions of the old traditional barn. That’s ours in the photo above which we built for a small flock of sheep, two cows and calves and one horse 35 years ago. (I think the pet craze has something to do with the new interest in farm animals too, a subject for later blogs.) These barns are built for animal and human comfort, not like today’s factory barns crammed full of animals with little thought for anything except how to reduce the per unit cost of production. Barns are becoming again society’s food sanctuary at the center of the new farming universe. As such, they give off an aura of peace and security that is uncanny and difficult to put into words. There are certainly times when mayhem can hold sway there too to keep the farmer from getting bored, but for the most part, standing in an old barn full of animals you feel a tranquility sort of like being in an almost empty church in the middle of a quiet afternoon. For some farmers, their barn is their church.

On such farms the barn becomes a menagerie full of livestock pets. Children turn barns into playhouses, a place for games of hide and seek, of swinging on hay ropes, of sliding down mounds of hay. And of course the barn dance is still part of our living heritage. Basketball historically seems to have started in barns. As the mows emptied, the floor space opened up. Some say that’s why basketball’s main season is spring. At least I can guarantee you, basketball is still alive and well in some barns. Ask my grandsons.

The work is challenging, but pleasantly so most of the time. Numbskulls do not last long in the barn. You know all your animals by name. Curlyhead needs to be penned tonight because she is about to have lambs. Make sure Trump, the rooster, is in the coop before you close up, or he will be crowing at your bedroom window at daybreak. Give Shorthorn, the steer, a little more grain tonight and don’t let Whiteface push him away from it. Be sure to turn off the hose filling the watering trough.

There are limitless ways to design these structures to suit your needs and number of livestock. Study the old barns. Hundreds of years went into their design and function. The magic here is that you are hardly ever doing just one thing when you are working there. When you are feeding and bedding down the animals, you are making the fertilizer for next year’s crops. And oh how the cows romp in the fresh straw you put down for them to sleep on. Happy cows give more milk and I think have less mastitis. The clover hay you feed has already paid for itself by supplying free nitrogen to your soil. The hay piled high in the mow is a monument to its role in controlling erosion when it was growing in the field. In Minnesota’s sub zero winters, I often milked coatless because the cows and the bank barn built into a side hill and the insulating hay kept the place fairly warm. When we milked the modern way, with a milking parlor, we had to install a stove to stay warm. Chickens running loose provide some fly control as they eat fly larvae in the bedding and eat the half-digested corn wasting in the cow manure. Cats pay for the milk you give them by controlling mice and rats.

As you loiter after chores, you think about how you and your barn sanctuary form a sort of halfway house between man and nature. You are filled with great satisfaction and a feeling of independence. The world beyond might be foundering in chaos, but right here in your quiet barn, peace prevails…at least until Rooster Trump starts crowing in the morning.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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