Ed. note: This post is an excerpt from Kayaking with Lambs: Notes from an East Tennessee Farmer by Brian Miller and published by Front Porch Republic Books. Reposted with permission from the publisher.
I look on as the last of our Red Poll herd clambers aboard the trailer, bound for a farm in Southern Illinois. One lone steer remains behind, with nothing but ewes and lambs for company. Around the corner the Barred Rocks and Brown Leghorns scratch for bugs, totally indifferent to the leaving. The pigs in their paddocks, still sleeping off their dinner repast, are oblivious to all but dreams of breakfast.
To run a small, diversified farm is to live within the wheel. It turns for the seasons, for the markets, for the climate. We have spent many years planning, building, and repairing the infrastructure to support multiple endeavors, to make the farm resilient, to create and sustain a place where the absence of one species simply indicates another cycle, unremarked in the larger scheme.
Livestock live out their lives here, with their offspring, born, raised, fattened, and slaughtered. Crops are planted, watered, and harvested. Dinners are planned, cooked, and enjoyed. The refuse is gathered, emptied, and composted. Wheels within wheels, seasons within seasons, years within years. Everything is done within a scale that is appropriate to our abilities, our infrastructure, our needs.
Some wondered with the sale of the cattle if we were scaling back, down, in retreat. They deconstructed the act, examined the entrails, to discover more than was presented. But if they had taken a closer look and a broader view, they would have seen a panorama painted over the years, one that continues to transform with each brush stroke.
In that big picture the beautiful snow of winter becomes a distant dream come the dry, hot summer. Chicks in the spring lead to a convivial table in the fall. A herd of cattle is followed by a flock of sheep; a harvest of potatoes is replaced by manure and then a crop of beans. The one true constant in all is the turning wheel that brings the careful observer into active participation.
The small farm is itself a participant workshop of opportunities and dreams. It’s a place that, if we will read the cycles, does not scale up or down but continues on in a circle, a place where the new becomes the old becomes the new again, all within a framework of what is reusable, possible, and desirable.
As we live within the wheel we are but fleeting stewards. The farm belongs not to us but to a much more demanding landlady, one who insists on her share of the successes and who is unforgiving of our failures. The panorama she paints is of billions of years rather than a handful of decades.
And while capricious in her communications—railing one minute and calm the next—she is nonetheless predictable to a degree. Our challenge is to watch for her moods and take only what she will allow, knowing that when we are done the tenancy of this land reverts back to her.