The Small Moments of the Early Morning

October 3, 2016

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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It is a cool 48 degrees as I step off the back porch. The sun is below the eastern ridge, a heavy dew hangs on the grass, and a light mist floats in the orchard. The crabapple, looking like a carefully decorated Christmas tree, is heavy with fruit. There are still figs ripening on the fig trees, and as I bring feed to Peggy, I part the curtains of leaves and look for fruit, flicking softly each ripened fig to dislodge other guests. I pop a soft plum-colored fig into my mouth, then open the gate to feed our sow.

Peggy is up quickly, a sure sign that after a difficult week her appetite has returned. She follows me to the feeding trough, submitting to a quick back scratch as I present her grain-and-slop breakfast. Her piglets burrow down in the hay awaiting her return.

The farrowing began the previous Sunday evening with one piglet and then a long, anxious hour of nothing. Around 5:30, we hit the panic button and called the vet. Nearly four hours later, our sow (and vet) had delivered 15 active piglets. In the ensuing days, Peggy lost a few by crushing them. Typically a very careful mother, the pain and swelling from the prolonged assisted delivery undoubtedly made her less attentive.

I exit the side gate next to the newly erected greenhouse. It is only 7:30 a.m. and the winds are still quiet. In just a few hours a group of friends will arrive to help stretch the plastic over the metal-and-wood skeleton. The completed 24-by-50-foot high tunnel is earmarked to house our winter crops, and soon I’ll be hustling to get the ground prepared and greens planted for fall.

Entering the inner corral, I open another gate. It squeaks too loudly and alerts the inhabitants of the barn of my arrival. Out pours our flock of sheep, all 18 ewes and offspring, and one very jealous ram. The ram’s recent arrival has made what was formerly a peaceful walk among the flock an occasion for high drama. He emerges from the barn like a gunslinger, to face me down on the dusty barnyard. His head shakes, he grunts, and he takes a few quick steps in my direction. Sidestepping, I slip past him and hurriedly fling open the gate to the pasture.

The cattle catch sight from the lower fields, and their bellows echo off the surrounding hills. Taking the racket as its cue, the sun emerges over the ridge and illumines all of the valley. I turn and walk back to the barn and fill up a bucket of feed for the cattle. It is not needed, but feeding them every few days keeps them docile and eager to come when called. A measure of control that will be rewarded should they ever escape onto our busy highway.

A gesture to Grainger and he jumps in the truck for the ride down the drive. With four muddy feet, he plants his mark across the entire span of the truck seat. At the gate to the lower pasture, I climb out, bucket in hand. Opening the gate is always a bit of a trick, with 1,500-pound cows crowding ‘round on the other side. I manage to squeeze through and fill the trough with feed, spending a few minutes watching the calves dart in for milk while moms are otherwise engaged.

Back in the truck and up the long drive, I pull up to the barn. Grainger tumbles gracelessly out in all of his late-puppy glory. The chickens, meanwhile, have come off the roosts, so I toss them some scratch. The newly hatched chicks are huddled under the heat lamp and barely acknowledge my presence.

One last chore, I walk out to the woods and fill more buckets of feed for the waiting market hogs. They average 225 pounds now and have another six weeks before slaughter. But I do not speak of such things as I turn the buckets into the trough. And they seem unconcerned that their desire to eat until stuffed might impact the course of their lives.

I leave them fat and content and go back to the house to join Cindy in a cup of coffee. We discuss the upcoming day, and, after feeding myself, I head back outside.

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Brian Miller

Brian Miller lives in rural east Tennessee with his partner, Cindy. Since 1999 they have owned and operated Winged Elm Farm: a 70-acre working farm of pastures, orchards and mixed hardwoods. They direct market pork, lamb, mutton and beef to customers in Knoxville and Chattanooga. A native of Louisiana, Brian’s guiding influence in life is to know that everything begins with a roux. Brian blogs at The South Roane Agrarian. He is the author of Kayaking with Lambs: notes from an East Tennessee farmer.

Tags: building resilient food systems, mixed small-scale farming