Harvest Time

Surprisingly, about every time I work, feed, and walk with the cows, I think of their mortality.  Specifically, the dichotomy between our raising and caring for them, and our annual culling of the herd.  Although this will be our eighth year, it is never easy.

If I had been raised on a farm perhaps the reality of give and take would be inherent like a matter of the seasons, but I wasn’t.  Food came in boxes, bags, and shiny wrappers.  Much of it was processed.  Made in some far off factory on the outskirts of a city, or small rural town.  Food didn’t have a face or soul; it didn’t have a personality; it didn’t have a name.  Well, not entirely true, much it did have names with Super, Fruity, Chef, or Uncle. Come to think of it, food HAD a personality . . . It was a cartoon bird with a colored beak, a talking bottle of syrup, a dancing oven mitt, or lovable doughboy.  None of these adorable mascots were ever “harvested” or, even worse, “butchered”.  They always returned, day after day, and proclaimed “Eat me!”

But we didn’t.  They were too cute and practically a part of the family.  We did however indulge in what the pusher-puppet was pushing, and it was guilt free (minus those nutrient deficient calories).  Sometimes we even committed an odd cannibalistic crossover and ate meat if it was advertised by a funny cartoon animal of the same species.

Oh, ignorance IS bliss.  Keep your characters in the TV box, food in a styrofoam box, and farm animals in a box; preferably one like a picture frame with a pastoral fantasy of a big red barn, cows munching grass, and a rooster on a fence post.  Real life is different, and for close to a decade, I stopped eating meat because the reality of mainstream meat is so disconnected from what we think we are eating.

It is not my intent to describe the meat industry, nor do I feel it necessary to condone their actions.  Simply put, it’s consumer driven.  Want a fast burger?  Go down the chain and find your link.  Want a burger and the knowledge of how it (the cow/steer) was birthed, fed, treated, and finally harvested?  Find a small beef rancher.  Most likely, they’ll be a family farm who knows their animals.  They will have names for some, if not all, and when it comes time to reduce the herd, they will take cattle that have a name and a history.

“How can you do that?  I couldn’t.”  My aunt once asked with less concern for an answer and more to claim her high moral ground.  She is not the first person to interject this type of poison into what is already a difficult decision–a farmer’s guilt doubled with friend’s and family’s derision.  How ludicrous?  To think the responsible person carries the conscience of all.  And how I did enjoy her Holiday golden, foil-wrapped Honey Baked Ham.

How CAN you do that?  Not easily.  The answer is not a concrete moral high ground, but rather a moral quagmire.  I wrestle with it, and the reasons differ from the point of view of the questioner.  Beef has its issues, yet on our farm it pairs well with what we have and we want to accomplish.  For starters, it’s a hay farm on a floodplain.  In this combination we avoid two simple losses.  Loss of topsoil by annual plowing for cereal grains or legumes, and loss of nutrients by repeated harvest of grass.  Cows keep the land intact and they refertilize the soil with their manure.  But sometimes too much of a good thing is too much, so we remove animals every year in order to balance what the land can handle.

Game managers refer to this as a carrying capacity.  The idea that a forest or rangeland has the ability to sustain only a certain amount of wildlife, etc.  On forty acres we “carry” around 14 cattle through the lean winter, with roughly 18 during the lush summer.  For now this seems to work, yet there still exists the matter of removing four animals from our care.

Stepping back with the naïveté of the most well intentioned animal rights activist, imagine our herd free to reproduce and multiply without intervention.  After a few years of calving, our girls and boy (Red, Shannon, Clover, Cinnamon, Molly, and Puck respectively), would be hungry because the land would be overgrazed from too many stomachs (ruminant humor).  Eventually, with a lack of suitable forage, animals would die from starvation or fall prey to coyotes.

Sure, this is apocalyptic farmer talk, but the picture wouldn’t be pretty and it’s not something I wish to have any of our cows go through.  Rather, once a year, on a random morning, we set out some hay for the herd.  Let them calmly eat, while life quickly leaves a few of them.  In minutes it’s done.  By now the rest of cows are spooked and confused.  Me too, as farmer, executioner, and now turned savior, I lead them out to the safety of a far pasture where fresh grass awaits.

Closing the gate behind them I call, “It’s alright girls.  It’s over.  Sorry.”  And I am.

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As a post script, I’d like to add a few descriptions of what follows the . . . killing.  (Not a word I like, but I feel it’s more to the point and more responsible than “harvest”.)  We take three to four animals a year and provide beef for close to a dozen families.  All of the consumable parts are taken off site by the butcher.  We keep as much of what remains as possible and eventually return it to the fields as compost.  The goal is to keep the circle of life intact; and thus, our cows thrive and survive almost (other than salt blocks) entirely from our farm.

Whereas, after a couple of weeks of curing, the beef sides are cut and wrapped by a (very) small town butcher for our clients.  These families go to the store and pick up their meat, which is frozen in cuts and sizes of their choosing.  The package is austere, white paper with a red print that reads: “Ground Beef”, “Beef Chuck Roast”, or “Tenderloin”.  No frills, no cartoon, no catchy jingle, no mockery of a life ended, but rather a simple truth and, eventually, a reverent meal with friends and family.



There are moments or places where one feels blessed and thankful to be alive.  One of mine is swimming in the Snohomish River.  It is a summer tonic, an invigorating bath, and daily baptism.  Even though I hardly stay in the cold, mountain fed waters for long, there is a feeling of absolution after jumping in.  If a polar bear plunge kicks off a New Year, then a summer swim solidifies the resolution.

Surprisingly, it is rare for locals to swim in the river. I know of no other nearby family or person who regularly takes a plunge in the clear, summer water.  We occasionally see a boater or jet-ski ply the water, yet even these watercraft recreationalists hardly get their feet wet.  To them, the river is more of a medium or surface for joy rather than a pleasure in of itself.  Instinctively, I get it.  Creature comfort comes from staying on top of the water not in it.  Our lizard brain calls out, “I could die in there!”  And it’s right, yet that reptilian reaction thinks too much and sometimes we need drop a Class and get in touch with our amphibian roots.

Occasionally, my bewilderment at what my neighbors are missing out on has gotten the better of me, and I’ve asked, “What’s wrong with you?  Sorry, I mean why don’t you swim in the river?”  Their answers–no surprise–are based on expected discomfort and real, albeit unlikely, danger of the current and cold temperature.  Some locals, of multiple generations, even say it’s too polluted. “Don’t you know they dump sh*t in there.”



Yes, we know, and better than most.  It so happens that the previous owner of our farm treated the river as his personal landfill.  Tractors, implements, tires, pipes, bottles, wire, plates, and livestock meds were all dumped in the tidal influx of the riverbank.

It’s a sad truth about farmers, and human society in general.  We treat water, especially rivers, like a sewer system.  Quick to wash our hands of life’s dirty deeds: out of sight, out of mind.  On the Snohomish, affluent enters the stream via city, treatment plant overflows, breaches and leaks from an agricultural slurry pond (A large pool of collected waste; usually from a dairy farm with a 100+ cattle held in relative confinement), and runoff from animals (including humans) defecating in close proximity to water.

Listing a few of the possible source contaminants almost makes me feel like swimming may not be such a great idea after all, yet isn’t that the real shame of it?  That we’ve slowly ruined our water quality and, consequentially, our perception of it.  Here in lies the lasting damage.  Over time, water can take away waste by dilution, filtration, and deposition, yet it cannot wash away a society’s delusion that it is dirty and not worthy or respect or reverence, and thus, we continue to spoil what remains.

It’s ironic that many faiths believe water and rivers can cleanse one’s soul to the point where they are born again, or washed of sin, as these very rivers are now some of the most polluted in the world.  Are we blind to the contradiction?  Are we blind to the correlation?  Are we destined to wash ourselves and find salvation in our own polluted feedback loop.  Or, can we truly be blessed and purify both?

I remain optimistic and cannot give up hope that we can keep water clean.  We have to.  There is no “special interest” in water.  There is no separate water system like bottled water, or us versus them scenario where that stream is gross, but not mine.  It affects us all; it is our body, sustenance, spirit, and life.  We cannot wash our hands of it or be born again when its very essence is vile.

So take action.  Do the little things that make a difference.  For instance, buy products that are biodegradable and not toxic.  Think before you pour it down the drain.  Keep your fuel tanks and engines, septic tanks and sewer lines, and pets and personal waste contained and in good working order.  Support companies and farms that use natural or organic chemicals, fertilizers, and pesticides (or better yet, don’t use them).  Defend the Clean Water Act and help make it stronger.  And most importantly, go swimming!


The Snohomish River is still clean and safe for swimming.  Fortunately, because its length and drainage basin size, there is not a huge amount of area for development and pollution.  However, late summer months like August have the highest percentage of waste due to livestock and the paucity of rain.  Keeping animals out of the river and adjacent streams would improve this factor.

Check out:,, and for inspiration.



Forty acres is plenty.  I used to think a hundred or so would be marvelous: some pasture land, forest, and, ideally, waterfront on a lake or river . . . Perfect.  I imagined the land would take care of itself, and native plants and animals would flourish in a refuge of untouched splendor.  All Nature needed was for humans to stop meddling and balance would be restored.

Perhaps this is true. Given time, (much more than my lifetime), the tide and seasonal floods would return to the fields and drown out ill adapted grasses, shrubs, and trees. In place of pasture grass: cedar, spruce, crabapple, alder, and a myriad of other vegetation would carpet the river valley.  As the tended grass diminished, so too would the horse and cow fade away and be replaced by deer and bear.  In this temperate forest, the iconic salmon could return and spawn in waters that are cool and clear. Instead of a rooster’s call, bird song would spring from the fern fronds and rain down from the canopy.

Ahh . . . Paradise.

But then again, the land might be overwhelmed in a sea of reed canary grass, Japanese knotweed, and Himalayan blackberry.  These introduced species dominate the forgotten corners and neglected hedgerows of my neighborhood.  If it weren’t for diligent maintenance, they would outcompete the native plant species I’ve purposefully planted, such is their tenacity.  I find it hard to imagine what and how many animals might call this triad habitat.  Furthermore, the waterways might choke from the mats of canary grass, clumps of knotweed, and thorny thread of blackberry. (For a time, the beaver, however, would have dam excellent material!)  Already many of our river and stream banks in Snohomish County are braced we these exotics, as they thrive in the region’s wet conditions.

Which brings me to the last case scenario, we’re under water.  Based on Surging Seas Risk Finder, much of our farm may be coastal.  A one foot rise above the high tide mark floods over ninety percent of our fields.  Even at current tides levels, I have seen my back pasture and hayfield flood when the drainage district’s tide gate was stuck open from a log jam.  And this is just under normal tidal conditions.  In the event of the river flooding, much, if not all of our farm could be inundated.  With such frequent wet soil and intrusion from the Puget Sound, the land would become more estuarine, and vegetation would consist of small shrubs, sedges, rushes, and saltwater tolerant grasses.  Shorebirds and waterfowl–not cattle, sheep, or poultry–might call our acreage pasture.

In this last future, forty acres is surely enough, but is it?

To lose?  Yes. Yet, if it’s come to that, if climate change and subsequent sea level has altered the landscape so drastically, is it enough to make a difference?  How much land cultivated, conserved, restored, or given up is enough to set the balance straight?  Do the scales of Nature even work that way?

No they don’t, but unfortunately, human societies do, and we often mitigate the Environment, our Environment, like an amputee.  Just how much can we cut off, pollute, deforest, or plow under before it’s too much?

It’s as if our planet is a game of Jenga and we’re all pulling out the bricks and stacking them higher for the next player, the next generation.  When is this tower of ignorance going to topple?  We think, Hopefully not on my turn, as the aquifer drains, the coral bleaches, the rainforest burns, and the air is made toxic.  Another brick is pulled from the puzzle.  It shakes, sways, yet stands.  Ahh, a collective sigh.  We’re still in the game.

As a species we are still in the game, yet in my opinion we are losing faster than we are gaining.  Don’t let your blip of existence and innovation fool you–much is lost and gone forever.  For instance the extinction rate, determined by to have a natural rate of one to five species/YEAR, is now 1,000 to 10,000 times that, meaning we’re losing five to ten species/DAY!

Out of the many worries associated with the planet, I highlight species loss because of it’s relevance to my agricultural experience and pertinence with current events.  In the September issue of National Geographic, (Yes, this is the July post.  Forgive me, I’m a little behind.), Daisy Chung and Michael Greshko report on the “Silent Spring on the Farm”.  In the article they document bird loss on European farmland since 1980.  Not surprisingly, with increased agricultural cultivation, mono cropping, and pesticide use, avian habitat and food sources have gone down dramatically.  In most cases, multiple species of birds are declining except a few types of generalist birds. (These, I imagine, are like the European Starling, Pigeon, and Sparrow that seem so at home at bird feeders, chicken coops, granaries, and other human dominated environments.)

Species diversity requires farm diversity.

Ten years ago we took over 40 acres of grass.  The first time I mowed the hay, I couldn’t tell where the field ended and my lawn began.  (If it weren’t for the levee I might drive clear into the river.)  I don’t remember much of the wildlife, because there wasn’t much to see. Animal life is dependent on plant life and we had a corresponding array of life to match our grass.  For example, we had cows.

Now, I look out the window and I can’t see my hayfields or the river, but I can see small thickets of Willow, Alder, Black-twinberry, Indian Plum, and Vine Maple to name a few.  I can see a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Bewick’s Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Rufous Hummingbird, and other birds perusing the rich layers of vegetation.  Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of a long-tailed weasel, mink, or hear a barn owl screech overhead.  Granted I lost a fraction of my “crop”, yet we benefit from the wind break, shade, fruit, cross pollination, and peace of mind that it fosters life rather than diminishes it.

Really that’s what it all comes down to.  Sure, we’re pulling a brick from under the tower: the land is still worked with tractors, the cows are harvested, the fruit picked, but it’s coming out slowly.  And in its stead, filling the void, are thousands of planted natives, no pesticides, and over two dozen varieties of “shared” animal food.

Forty acres is plenty.  I have some pasture land, forest, and waterfront on a river . . . Perfect.  I imagine the land would take care of itself, and native plants and animals would flourish in a refuge of untouched splendor.  BUT UNFORTUNATELY IT DOESN’T. In this case, Nature needs a lot of human meddling for balance to be restored.

Enjoy a listen of an Avian orchestra below.


With every post I reflect and draw inspiration from the monthly writings of A Sand County Almanac.  Rereading June, I can’t help but think of my brother.  It’s not my intent to get personal, yet it feels false to drum up inspiration when Leopold’s entry reminds me of loss.  And that’s why I cherish June; it helped me understand and give voice–I read it at my brother’s funeral–to life’s subtleties.  Even today, 15 years later, it continues to read like an allegory on the meaning of life.

I cannot help feeling a little omniscient posting the “meaning of life”, but it’s there and I recommend everyone read June, and read it again.  Set aside some time.  Let your trout line and fly dry in the afternoon air.  Five minutes should do.  Then–for prudence sake–a little longer.

I shall now confess to you that none of those three trout had to be beheaded, or folded double, to fit their casket.  What was big was not the trout, but the chance.  What was full was not my creel, but my memory.  Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning on the fork.  –Aldo Leopold















“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings.”
― William Shakespeare

An occasional swallow–usually a brilliant Violet-green Swallow–seen sweeping the sky above, cheerfully signals that spring is here, yet a nesting Barn Swallow, chirping, squeaking, and squealing upon your entering the barn . . . Screams of summer.

My Barn Swallows are back.  Like a bus of sugar fiend teenagers, they push through the barn doors, chase each other, squabble, taunt me, and then chase and chatter some more  until they’re back out the door.  For the first few years of living here, I reveled in the attention.  I was Snow White to a troop of gremlins.  Then, be it age or all the guano, I started to revile the specters and all their bickering.

In other ways, seasonal Barn Swallows are like a band of gypsies: they show up, I delight in their company and easy going nature, yet soon they act like they own the place and I grow tired of their ceaseless mirth.  So this year, I was determined to put an end to their squatting and I enclosed the cow barn.  Wait, no cries of home wrecker.  In my defense, and mutual good fortune, I created alternative perches in other barns; the machine shed, hay barn, and horse barn are now adorned with this bird’s mud nest gargoyles and unsightly streaks of white.

Barn swallows build their nests by attaching a mud shelf to wall, or they build on top of a structure, like a beam or rafter, a series of mud layers which they deposit from their mouth.  Our farm is prime real estate since we have numerous outbuildings and we live on a tidal influenced river that exposes fresh mud daily.  From here, the swallows gather mud in their bills and then carry it to the curved wall of their nest.  It looks a little like a rudimentary clay cup that was fashioned from ropes of clay rather spun on a wheel.  When the half-moon shaped cups are 3-6 inches tall, the birds line it with hair, feathers, or other fluff and in lay around 3-5 eggs.


In short time these eggs are gaping mouths which the parents, (and I read they sometimes have close relatives help too), feed about every minute.  Most of the chicks eventually join their parents in the upper rafter ruckus, yet occasionally, a poor hatchling thinks it can fly too soon, or a crow risks the untrustworthy farmer and absconds into the barn for a snack.

As much as I lead on that the swallow’s are annoying, their presence on the farm is welcome.  I assumed they served the purpose of keeping the mosquitos down, yet I read they do not swarm feed with mouths agape.  Rather, they seek out larger, individual bugs like flies, beetles, bees, and wasps, which they pluck from the air.  This behavior is apparent when I cut hay and the birds circle the tractor, diving, and swerving to catch the disturbed insects.  You can watch the frenzy of feeding and filming on the video below.  Caution, it’s a little loud with the tractor engine.


*As a post script.  I observed a vindication for keeping a dead birch, while trying to photo a Violet-green Swallow.  This tree, and others, are dying out from the crown down.  Some have questioned my leaving them, yet I believe they serve a greater good as food source for bugs and subsequent woodpeckers, chickadees, etc. rather than a stump.  Turns out the small, unnoticeable holes are great homes for Violet-greens.  These swallows nest in cavities.  They do not create their nest like their Barn brethren.  I imagine cavities are hard to come by.  Most of the likely crevices are taken by bigger, more dominant, and frankly, in my opinion, uglier birds like the European Starling.  Luckily, this swallow couple found a home in the top of this dead trunk.

Unfortunately, it’s quite small, but its rump and tail feathers are protruding from the trunk slightly below center frame.  Hard to capture as the bird literally dive bombs into the hole.