A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: Memories and Family

My brother Jason with his 38.5 lb flathead catfish.

By: Stephen Jackson, MD

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

I ran back to the pond about a quarter mile from Mamaw and Papaw’s house (grandparents to non-southerners).  I was focused on the excitement and fear of running with a loaded shotgun and on not falling over the uneven ground and branches littering my path.  Papaw barely acknowledged me, his eight-year-old grandson, grabbing the weapon from his un-encased gun rack and loading it before barreling through the screen door at the front of the house.  My uncle and cousins calmly waited for me on the far bank of the pond, a respectful distance away from where a snake they called a cottonmouth coiled in anticipation of a confrontation.  I only remember being afraid of snakes at that age, ingrained in me by my mom and, clearly, by my uncle and cousins.  Shortly after my arrival, my uncle dispatched of the snake and the morning’s excitement came to a quick and booming end.  I remember being a little sad for the snake and I remember cradling the shotgun under my arm, barrel down, as we meandered back to the house for lunch.  Papaw taught all his grandkids early on how to safely handle and fire rifles and shotguns.  I had more fear of his reprisal at not maintaining the rigorous standards of gun safety he ingrained than any concern about the potential danger of a loaded weapon, though I’d had a very recent demonstration.

    Oddly, this memory is a warm blanket around my tired mind while I stare out the third-floor window of the hospital.  My vantage is southeast, and I can see the effects of the rising sun, gently adding color to the night-gray clouds along the horizon.   I’m thinking of home, which is almost directly south of the hospital.  My 48-hour call shift ends in a few hours.  I’ve just finished an emergency c-section of a fifth-time mom whose cocaine habit caused her placenta to separate from her uterus, nearly costing the baby, and the mom, their lives.  I’m relieved she got to the hospital when she did. I’m thankful for the speed and skill of the nursing and OR teams.  I’m glad I was able to get that baby out in time.  The baby came out kicking and screaming and the mom didn’t have any of the potentially catastrophic effects her situation could’ve caused her.

    After events like this I often wonder why I went into medicine.  I remember that my first motivation was to be a part of my community in a meaningful way, which is still true.  I’ve come to realize that while some preventative medicine is possible and always the goal, at the hospital level people often come in at the end of a string of bad circumstances.  In many cases the circumstances couldn’t have been prevented. Still, much of what causes illness can be prevented with a healthy lifestyle and diet.  This idea, in large part, led my wife and me into farming.  Food is the starting point for good health.  Even better, the hard work required to get that food to the table is a big chunk of the lifestyle part. 

    I always enjoyed my childhood trips out of the city to my grandparents’ farm, where my mom would drop us kids off for a week or two.  I can remember, so vividly, their farm. I remember going to sleep early, near nightfall, in my sleeping bag on the floor of the living room in their tiny farmhouse. I woke every morning to my papaw dumping me on the floor; pulling my sleeping bag away, toes first.  The cold air of 5 am hitting my skin was my second wake-up call.  Mamaw would already be up and starting breakfast.  Papaw, my brothers, and I would all get dressed and head out to do the first bit of morning work, returning a couple hours later for a hardy, homemade breakfast.  We’d head back out again until lunch time to finish the day’s work.  After lunch, we’d have the day to play as kids can do only on a farm.  On special occasions instead of farm work we’d go fishing, getting out on the lake around dawn.

    One of my early fishing memories takes me to High Rock Lake in North Carolina.  I might’ve been 10 years-old; that would’ve made my younger brother nine, my older brother fourteen.  My two brothers and I, along with Papaw were fishing for flathead catfish, the latest fishing fad for my mom’s side of the family.  We started by getting the boat on the water and then netting a bunch of bait fish.  We then traveled out to a deeper spot on the lake, attached our bait fish to our hooks, and dropped our lines near the bottom.  The day was beautiful and I sat there watching the large bobber gently ride the soft wake and wind-blown waves while listening to Papaw tell long stories about his childhood.  More than the stories themselves, his special way of telling them and his booming, deep belly laugh at his own not-so-funny jokes is what I remember being so special about time spent with him. 

At one point we were pulling in our lines to head to another spot on the lake.  My younger brother was having trouble getting his line in.  The reel seemed to catch.  Papaw confidently walked across the rocking fishing boat and started helping my brother untangle his line. I was staring off toward my bobber while reeling it in when I noticed my brother’s bobber shoot under the water in a hurry.  The sudden pull on the line caught Papaw off guard and, luckily, he’d untangled the line enough so that it wouldn’t snap under the fierce pull of whatever was on the other end.  My younger brother took the first shift, alternately reeling in, then letting the line out slowly, tiring out his quarry.  After about 15 minutes, it was my turn.  I reeled, as coached by Papaw, for another fifteen minutes until my arms and back burned from the effort.  We seemed to be making some headway in getting the fish closer to the boat.  After my older brother’s turn, it was my younger brother who finished the task.  I was not prepared for the monster that surfaced.  The boat was anchored at only the bow to the floor of the lake and the monstrous flathead was pulling us in a slow circle around the anchor.  The fish next to the side of the boat finally, Papaw used what looked like a meat hook to catch the inside part of the gaping maw of our prey, and ultimately to get her into a large net and onto the floor of the boat.  I remember the catfish weighed 38.5 pounds. It was the largest fish I’d ever been a part of catching and well worth the effort of the long day.

    Staring out the hospital window now, I feel unmoored by the morning’s events.  I’m not sure why these two memories had emerged.  They are buried deep and surface, like the flathead catfish, in big and unexpected ways.  Maybe my mind is looking for a safe harbor, away from the stormy waters of powerful circumstance that make me afraid for my patient and her newborn child.  Maybe I find comfort and safety in memories that have shaped me in important ways – memories that are somehow tied to survival.  Many of the more visceral childhood lessons of survival surround time I spent with Papaw.

    My drive home today is automatic and I barely remember the trip until the driveway starts jostling the Tahoe.  I’m shaken from my own thinking and start focusing on the land, the sounds, the smells, the beauty of the trees and undergrowth.  I’m invigorated to try and be the kind of dad that’s as memorable as Papaw.  The girls occasionally roll their eyes when I tell stories of my time spent on a farm as a child.  Still, I know they’ll remember the stories and the things we do together on and off our farm.  My hope is that the memories will be warm and comforting to them when life gets tough.  Memories, good and bad, shape the way we handle adversity and prosperity.  They also shape the way we navigate the mundane, which is most of the time.  I know Papaw, now long passed, can see me.  I sometimes hear his booming laugh when I get something wrong, good-naturedly ribbing me.  I see his relaxed, arms-crossed posture sitting in his usual attire, overalls and a white t-shirt, on his front porch.  He nods approvingly when I get something right.  There’s no doubt he is proud of me, what we’re doing here on our farm, the way we’re raising our girls, and our stewardship of the land. 

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: City dog, Farm Dog

Panda

By: Stephen Jackson, MD

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

Driving the Tahoe back toward the house, I glance at my passenger.   Her head is in its usual position – out the window.  In the side mirror I see her tongue lolling out of her mouth, blown by the wind toward her ear.  We’re only going a quarter mile down the driveway, but her enthusiasm is as high as the kids’ headed to Disney.  I don’t mind being alone carrying out a farm task.  I just prefer having my farm dog Panda around.

When we moved to the farm four years ago, we had two dogs and two cats.  Both canines were prone to running off if not on the leash or in an enclosure.  Our felines preferred the creature comforts of the indoors, lounging on couch or counter-top, knocking over anything within reach.

Shortly after our arrival, whenever my wife would check the mail, she noticed a brindle dog of indistinct breed approaching her.  The mutt was friendly enough.  Her ribs were visible through her fur and this set the hook, she would be fed.  She bore no tags and didn’t otherwise carry any identification.  Since our mailbox is located right on a busy, high-speed country road, my wife began to worry the dog might get hit by a car or truck.  At first, food was left near the mailbox so there was some source of nutrition.

One evening my wife mentioned her mailbox buddy to me.  She told me of her plan to gradually bring the food closer and closer to the house, ostensibly to get the dog away from the road (our driveway is nearly half a mile long).  I reluctantly agreed.  I didn’t want any harm coming to the poor stray.  However, I didn’t want another animal in our house.  My wife assured me that was not her intention.  True to form, two days later there were brand new food and water bowls on the front porch and our adopted pet sported a new collar, complete with a shiny tag with our address and her new name, Panda, given to her by my older daughter, Big H.  I should have known better.

Over the course of our marriage I’ve learned my wife often couches these things in terms my brain will find more acceptable.  For example, I got a call one day while I was at work during which my wife asked me what I thought about her and my older daughter going into the SPCA to see the dogs.  Assurances were given that this was a just-look situation and that my daughter understood the rules walking into the place.  Translation:  Big H has already picked out a puppy from the SPCA.  Not long after, I received another call (this one I expected) that Big H had picked out no less than two pups that were sister beagles that had been found together and were inseparable.  The question was: would I be on-board if we got both?  My predictable answer was that we would only ever take one dog – this was a time when we were taking none.  We had recently lost Daisy, a six-year-old mutt, to an unknown disease and my wife insisted that the family needed at least one of the dogs and that at least one of the two needed us.  Of course, my answer was the phone equivalent of a barely perceptible affirmative nod. I felt a modicum of satisfaction in putting my foot down that we would only get one of the two sisters.  Translation: one of the dogs had been dubbed for adoption by someone else.  The other one, now known as Lila, was already in our car headed toward a new life in the Jackson household.

After Panda spent only a short time living outside on our front porch, I came home to find her lounging on her own new pillow near the sofa.  Just like that we had canine number three living in our house.  Panda turned out to be an amazing addition to our family and will likely be remembered as one of the best of the dogs we’ve ever had.  Whenever we’re outside working, she’s right there with us, ever faithful and companionate.  She’s also set good examples for our other dogs.  If either our beagle or retriever takes off on a countryside hike without our permission, Panda easily finds them and escorts them back.  Our retriever, once a terror and source of quick death to our chickens, now hardly bothers to notice the chickens at all.

We also have cats.  There isn’t much to say about the farm version of them.  My wife had the idea that we should get barn cats.  The only thing I knew about them at the time was to stay away.  They should be considered miniature, angry cougars that were not pets.  We adopted two kittens that had never lived inside.  One of them, Sparkles (named by my younger daughter, little H) quietly stole away one night, never to be seen again.  Little H still asks about her.  There has even been one alleged sighting that remains unconfirmed.  The other cat, aptly named Ginger by big H due to her coloring, remained in the barn for a while.  The first cold night came and the six imploring eyes of the three animal-loving females in my life bought Ginger an instant upgrade to indoor-cat status.  To this day Ginger will scratch me for no good reason.  Little H can pick her up by her ears and the cat purrs happily while swinging back and forth in little H’s grasp as she’s carried to whatever make-believe destination my daughter has in store.

I’ve never been to a farm where there wasn’t at least one dog, a central figure to the family.  No matter the setting, they can serve many purposes. They are protectors, companions, weird friends who have all types of mostly-lovable quirks. But, put a dog on a farm and a whole new level opens up for them.  If their goal is to please, a farm is the best of all places for them to ply their trade.  I can speak from both types of experiences, the dog in a city and the dog on a farm.  Having a dog in the city is like having a Ferrari that can be driven only on the driveway.  A farm dog is like having the Ferrari and your own private autobahn.

I’m glad my daughters have the experience of dogs.  The furry creatures become a part of the family that we know one day will have to go.  I vividly remember the night I held Nora, my dog of 15 years, as the vet injected her with the medication that would put her out of her misery.  I can barely think about, much less write about the events that led up to the moment I felt her heart stop beating.  Being there in that moment was an impossibility.  Yet, she’d been there, unquestioningly, for 15 years of my life.  There was no question that I’d be there in that scariest of moments for her.  I don’t regret a second of time with her.  My daughters will know the loss. What I want them to understand is that the loss is part of the bargain.  We get our dogs in our lives for what amounts to a little while and give them the best life possible.  We are fortunate to have them and they’re fortunate to have us.  The appreciation of that limited time, the memories made, the shared experiences, is what I want my daughters to have because it can be applied to nearly every other area of life.

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: Pot Bellies

PotBellies

By: Stephen Jackson, MD

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

Hurricane Michael quickly darkened the sky and the storm hurried to get started.  The winds skipped several notches in kicking up, grass and plants all around bending under its shifting and impressive will.  The light drizzle that followed in short order was, judging by all other indicators, a very small appetizer to what we were about to be served.  The other creatures seemed to be heading for shelter except Piggi Minaj, one of our Vietnamese Pot Belly pigs.  She languidly lounged in a dry depression in the ground, well away from her shelter and was probably enjoying the quick temperature drop.  Normally, we wait what seems like forever as she trundles toward us when we bring her a gastronomic treat, leftover birthday cake being one of her favorites.  Today, however, when we tried to coax her to the safety of her shelter to ride out the storm, she shot out of her depression in the ground, in the wrong direction, as if lightening itself was chasing her.  I paused for just a moment to marvel at the locomotive speed to which she had accelerated.  Suddenly, jolting, simultaneous lightning and thunder broke my reverie.  My wife, father-in-law, and I were trying to form a triangular wall around Piggi.  Her sudden speed shot her through the hypotenuse and she easily outpaced our chase.  The rain was coming in sheets now and mud quickly suctioned my mucking boots to the ground, making the whole effort increasingly less encouraging.  After a few more minutes of watching Piggi get further away, we gave her up for nature’s creature and we were forced to release the responsibility of her safety to the pig’s own instincts.

Since nearly the beginning of our farm adventure we’ve had pigs.   First, we bought three Large Black piglets.  We tried to impress on our older daughter, who was five years old at the time, that these pigs would be used for food. We named them Bacon, Sausage, and Ham to reinforce the idea.  She seemed to easily accept this fact, which reassured me that my daughter did take after me in some ways; extreme love of bacon in this case.  Instead, she asked if we could get some pigs to keep as pets.  We certainly enjoyed the sweet-natured, intelligent pigs we already had.  So, the idea was quickly adopted in the forms of Glenda and Piggi Minaj.  Glenda and Piggi were rescued Pot Belly pigs my wife found through an organization called Red Dog Farm Animal Rescue Network.  We borrowed a neighbor’s truck and drove to pick them up from their respective foster farms.  Piggi Minaj was young, small, and trusting.  She was fostered at a YMCA camp in Greensboro along with other people-friendly livestock and was easily coaxed into the medium-sized dog crate with the kept promise of food.  All eighty pounds of her was hefted onto the back of the truck with only a little fuss from her. Then we went to get Glenda.

The foster farmer who had Glenda kept her in his barn.  I backed the truck up to the open end of the barn.  As barns go, this one was a beauty.  The barn had a center aisle, flanked on both sides by animal stalls.  There were lofts above on either side.  As I walked through the barn, I noticed that on both sides of the aisle the stalls housed all manner of livestock.  The scene made me think of Charlotte’s Web and mentally I regressed to a much younger age and briefly enjoyed a child-like excitement to be among an array of barnyard animals that would make E. B. White proud.  Glenda was out and trundling around the aisle, along with some chickens and ducks.  The far end of the barn was closed by a gate that only partially obscured the view of a pasture with larger livestock and a scenic pond.  The bucolic beauty of this family’s farm reminded me why we wanted our own farm in the first place.

The resident farmer and I stood side by side regarding Glenda and her rotund, low-hanging abdomen.  She appeared to be about 200 pounds, mostly belly.  We discussed some strategies for coaxing her into the large-breed dog crate situated on the ground near the truck’s tailgate.  I approached Glenda to pet her and she allowed me a few moments to enjoy the feel of her mud-crusted coating and stiff hair. We tried using her favorite feed to move her in the direction of the crate, which worked until she got near enough to the crate to catch on to our ruse. She abruptly turned and retreated all the way to the far end of the barn and lodged herself against the gate, probably hoping to get into the pasture.

We decided to bring the crate to her.  We wriggled the crate around her frame, tail-end first, and amid her high-pitched squealing and disgruntled grunts we eventually backed her into the crate.  We alternately dragged, pushed, lifted, and did everything possible to get the pig and crate from the far end of the barn all along the seemingly endless aisle.  Once at the back of the truck, the only thing left to do was to lift a crate crammed with 200 unevenly distributed pounds of an unhappy and shifting pot-bellied pig.  With a glance I measured up the strength of the sweating, friendly farmer, who so far had not abandoned me.  He seemed to be about my age and had a sturdy, farm-strong look about him.  We briefly made eye contact and a with a nod it was understood that we would both try to dead lift this crate together.  We were lifting from the sides and as Glenda was closer to the back of the crate, the front went up a little more easily than the back.  Holding my portion of the weight, I scrambled around to the back corner of the crate to put all my effort into lifting the now highly agitated and squealing pig.  I don’t remember the exact sequence of events at this point.  There was a slip of my boot, a scramble for balance, and a few un-muttered expletives as my rear hit the ground.  The outcome I remember clearly: a face-to-face with Glenda as she and her crate rolled across my lap, along with a searing pain along both my upper thighs as the edge of the crate and all of Glenda’s weight went before coming to rest, thankfully upright, on the ground beside me. Once I recovered most of my strength and none of my dignity, we enlisted my wife to provide the extra power and balance we would need to get Glenda onto the truck bed safely, which we thankfully did on the next try.

Once we got home, unloading the pigs was an easier process and we used a ramp system to ease the dog crates that contained them out of the truck. The pigs were only too happy to escape the dog crates when the doors were opened inside their new pasture.  We had converted an old farrowing house into a living space for the pigs. My wife had done an impressive job of preparing a comfortable bed of hay.  I had to admit it looked inviting even to me after the morning’s ordeal of getting Glenda.  Not much time had passed when Glenda smelled the food scraps left in her new sleeping space and she tried to make her way into the farrowing house.  She did her best but couldn’t come close to getting her belly over the six-inch threshold that separated her from her food.   I took a closer look at her and couldn’t find light between her belly and the ground.  Eventually we were able to re-route Glenda and Piggi to their new quarters thanks to more ingenuity from my wife.

I personally love the Pot Belly pigs.  An easy-going sort, they rarely make trouble.  People house-train these pigs and have them as live-in pets, an idea I quickly rejected under the pleading eyes of my daughters.  A large herd of goats and one sheep now share their living space and pasture.  The baby goats hop on the pigs’ backs, sometimes using them as stools to reach the feeding trays along the fence.  The pigs squeal and complain, but they don’t seem to mind, their straight tails swishing back and forth as they enjoy the food dropped from the trays above by the kid goats on their backs in compensation for the help.   Pigs have been said to be smarter than dogs, a fact that I don’t find hard to believe with the trio of canines we have living in our house.  Piggi knew something we didn’t that day that Hurricane Michael came through.  She survived the storm and, from what I could tell, she might’ve even been enjoying it for a while.

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: The Bright Lights of a Country Bathroom

Piglet

By: Stephen Jackson

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

I casually tossed my keys on the kitchen island and called out to a seemingly empty house. I had just arrived home from work.  So, I headed to the master bedroom to get changed out of my workday scrubs. Panda, our brindle farm dog, wined and sniffed the bottom of the bathroom door, tail wagging in happy anticipation of getting inside. I became aware of a chorus of cheep-cheeps coming from the bathroom.  I joined Panda at the door.  Already pretty sure of what I’d find, I opened the door to no less than 100 chicks in a playpen.  Thankfully, it was a big bathroom.  The garish, red brooding lights hung high enough from the floor to give them the right amount of warmth.  The girls gleefully sat around on the bathroom floor, each holding a fluffy, disgruntled chick.  My wife and daughters are suckers for cute animals and I’m a sucker for my wife and daughters.  So, I ambled in, plucked up a chick from the pen, and joined the girls on the floor with my own complaining chick.

If this domestic scene was a surprise for me that day, finding animals in our bathroom became much more the norm.  We’ve since housed a goat, a piglet, lambs, and even Turkey chicks.

Probably my favorite animals on the farm are graduates of the bathroom/brooder/sick bay.  We have some wonderful friends in the farming community and one of them had called my wife to ask if she might be able to provide some TLC to a pair of lambs that didn’t seem to be thriving.  Enthusiastically, my wife took up the task.  At that same time, we had a newborn goat kid whose mom had shunned her and wasn’t giving her access to milk.  The runty kid wasn’t ready for regular goat food and wasn’t likely to survive without intervention.  So, my wife bathroomed the kid.  The unlikely trio, two lambs and one goat, unfortunately became a duo after one of the lambs didn’t survive, even with my wife’s intensive care.  This left the kid, Katie, and the lamb, Baby Blue, a fast friendship that exists today.  My wife and older daughter bottle fed them until they could live outside with the goats.  During their time in the bathroom they could be found in the arms of my wife or older daughter attacking a milk bottle or joyfully bouncing around on our bed to the delightful laughter of our daughters.  Since being with the goats, Katie and Blue have remained a steadfast pair.  Whenever I clear the fence perimeter of the goat pasture, I always smile when I look over my shoulder to see Katie and Blue following along behind me, clearly still attached to me from our time together.  I can understand what it must’ve felt like to be Mary being followed around by her little lamb and goat.  Maybe she raised the lamb in the bathroom, too.  From the comfort of my front porch I can discern the burp-like bleat of Baby Blue.  The only other animals in the enclosure two large potbellies, more than once I have thought that Blue must think he is a goat, too.

Not all the bathroom patients have success stories.  I remember sitting on my younger daughter’s step stool looking down at my wife while she sat on the floor, teary-eyed, leaning against the bathtub, holding a piglet, who was quite sick with scours, trying to get him to eat or drink anything.  I remember the juxtaposition of feeling sad for the piglet and my wife while involuntarily smiling inwardly at the size six diapers the piglet was wearing.

While growing up, I would occasionally visit my Grandparents who were farmers.  My grandfather was one of the Greatest Generation and his values were a little different.  He would cull the herd of the sick animals, as it would’ve been a waste of precious resources to do otherwise.  I don’t fault him his values and doing what he believed to be right by his farm.  We didn’t grow up on a farm at all. So, we have a different value system and, thankfully, a few more resources. Watching Katie with her own two kids now, while probably leaving Blue a little confused as to his role in this new social structure, has been gratifying to me and, without doubt, to my wife.  I understand that animals might not think like humans. Still, I can’t help believing she would never neglect one of her own.

Since our first batch of chicks I’m glad that we now have a proper outdoor brooding shed for them.  It keeps them out of my bathroom. I don’t mind sharing the bathroom. Still, it is a little unsettling to have my wife say, “Honey, whatever you do don’t leave the bathroom door open, there are baby turkeys in the jacuzzi,” or “Hon, please be sure to turn on the fan when you’re showering tomorrow morning. I don’t want to steam the lamb.” Even still, I know that some sick animal will find its way back to the bathroom/brooder/sick bay.  For us, the animals are like family and bring us joy, even the ones destined to become a meal get all the royal treatment.

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband: A Walk Around the Farm

Indiana

By: Stephen Jackson

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

“Do you think he’s stuck, Daddy?”  I stared again at the business end of a nanny goat giving birth to her second kid in a row.  I was beginning to wonder if my daughter might be on to something.  An obstetrician, I guess I was the de facto expert on all things birth.  The fact is my older daughter had seen a dozen more goats giving birth than I had.  This one was my first.  The parturient was lying on her flank, her sky-side, back leg held up like she was getting ready to hike a football or in the latter stages of a pull-my-finger joke.  What appeared to be the fore-hooves and tip of the nose coming out of the birth canal was all I could make out.  The nanny seemed to stare at me, bleating plaintively.  I couldn’t tell whether she wanted help or was just showing off.  At this point, she probably didn’t even know I was there.  My wife and kids and I were all seated in our fold-up chairs in a meadow in a peaceful corner of the goats’ pasture.  The nanny had picked a lovely, shady spot to kid, well away from the other goats.  Situated in an arc about 20 feet from the laboring goat, I felt like we were a little intrusive.  In response to my daughter, I fell back on my favorite obstetrical maxim, “let’s just let nature take its course. Her body knows what it’s doing.”  In large part this was true.  I had watched well over a thousand women labor and have a baby, sometimes more than one at a time.  It was rare that this far along in the process any intervention, other than encouragement, was needed.   The kid was born in short order.  The nanny licked her baby dry and stimulated him to move with the same process.  The newly born kid was up on his feet and nursing within minutes.  I was duly impressed with the new family’s biological imperative to get moving.

After putting away our chairs, my older daughter and I decided to go for a walk around the farm.  After leaving the pasture and crossing our back yard we entered the large, wooded area of the farm.  Trees of many varieties provided a multi-layered canopy from the sun looming hot overhead. Dappled sunlight highlighted the forest floor where fallen leaves and other detritus littered the narrow, worn path.  The slight decline in the contour of the ground was leading us to the stream running across our land.

In the woods I try to tune in to all my senses to get the full experience.  Each time I try this I stumble upon something new.  The unseen combination of the smell of rotting, wet leaves and newly bloomed flowers filled the air.  Life and death circulating in harmony through my olfactory senses, the slight crunching underfoot filling the auditory.  I looked over to my daughter to see what she was getting from the easy, downslope part of our hike.  She seemed lost in thought.  I asked her if she could hear the approaching creek and how far she thought it might be.  Ever-teaching, I was hoping to engage her senses as I was attempting to engage my own.   She said she couldn’t really hear the creek.  Perhaps, it would be better for me to let her hike through the woods be her own experience and not mine.

While trying to extract my foot, boot still attached, from the muddy creek bottom I had less-than-gracefully slipped into, I watched my daughter effortlessly descend the creek bank, hop across the rocks, and nimbly climb the bank on the other side.  I guess she had taken the helpful parts of my lesson on how to cross the creek and avoided the what not-to-do parts I had unintentionally demonstrated.  Thankfully, she didn’t laugh at my risible predicament and we continued uphill with some of my dignity apparently still intact.

Our hike uneventfully continued, and we approached the electrical wiring of the moveable hog fence.  Peppa charged at us from across the woods at a pace I wouldn’t have guessed a hog could muster. She weighed 650 pounds, if she weighed an ounce, and in that moment, I understood what it might be like to be charged by an unhappy rhinoceros.  The heavy thump of her feet striking the ground so forcefully, I was sure the ground would’ve been shaking.  To my great relief, she stopped short of the wire-fence, inspected us for a few moments, and when she was satisfied that we weren’t bringing her food she did an about-face and promptly plopped her considerable girth in a shallow mud pool.  Pigs are wonderful rejuvenators of the forest floor, if they’re kept moving regularly.  They love mud and scratching themselves on trees, which leaves the trees stained with what looks like a high-water mark after a flood.  My eyes traced back through the woods along the previous areas of their makeshift enclosure and I could follow the growth of the pigs by the height of the mud stain on the trees.  I noticed at this point that the current water mark was at roughly the level of my hips.

We hiked on and approached our one troublemaker on the farm.  Indiana, a virile and cantankerous sheep was being kept separate from his newborn lamb, Percy, and Percy’s mom, Ophelia, after he was caught bucking Percy in an un-paternalistic way.  I’d had a run-in with Indiana myself.

Several months back, I had ventured into his wooded enclosure to bring him food and, after pouring food in his bowl, I stood and admired his living space.  The area was approximately three acres of wooded tranquility that had its own permanent fence I had repaired from fallen trees more than once. While pondering this, I received a thudding jolt to my right glute that sent me stumbling.  I managed to keep my balance but not my cool.  I wheeled around to face Indiana who had reared back on his hind legs, lining up to buck me again.  I side-stepped just enough to force him to canter a bit to put me back in his crosshairs.  A little in disbelief and a whole lot in mad, I had to figure out how to stop him from bucking me whenever I, or especially my wife and kids, entered his domain.  I recognized this as a contest of alpha versus beta and I was determined to improve my place in the Greek alphabet after he had already scored a convincing blow. I considering head-butting him for just a second.  I decided I did not want to have to explain to my wife why she had found me lying unconscious in his enclosure when I didn’t turn up for dinner.  I looked around and decided on a smooth, flat rock that I figured weighed about eight pounds.  I hefted the rock and judged it to be just about right.  I held up the rock in defense of his next attack, holding it toward him between my hands.  He apparently deemed the rock a worthy part of my body upon which he could establish his prowess.  He set his sites on the rock I now held in my hands.  He reared back, leaned, and bucked. He hit the rock squarely and my arms faltered backward just a bit.  I didn’t want to hurt him, but I didn’t want to give ground.  I presented him the rock-target again and he again obliged.  This time I leaned in a little more and pushed my arms slowly toward his advancing cranial charge.  When he struck again, he shuddered backward, and I took a confident step toward him to symbolically and tactically press my advantage.  Thankfully, two times was enough for him. He slowly walked away and desisted his challenge.  I held my head high, though I wasn’t sure I should be proud of my victory.

I relayed this story to my daughter while we were petting Indiana from the safe side of his fence. We continued our hike on the driveway, now nearing the house.  My daughter was just in front of me relaying a story in the excited way children share events in their lives.  At this turn in the drive, I could see the pigs, the lambs, the sheep, the goats, the chickens, and the house that we’ve inhabited for the past four years.

Reflecting on our walk, it occurred to me that while land and nature are beautiful inherently, it is the memories; the sensory and historical, that are the roots that support and nourish us in our love for our land.  Not just with food and shelter, the land binds to us with interaction that makes us another part of the natural order of things.  My family, the animals, the trees, the rocks, the creek, the weather; we are all this farm. While admiring the beauty of some of these things around me now, I am flooded with the history we all share.  I watch my daughter skipping past the field where Percy, Ophelia, and the newly constructed “Hennabego,” a new, moveable chicken coop, are situated.  I set my senses to work to take all this in.  Finishing off our hike, my daughter skips up the sidewalk, through the side door, out of view, and in to this particularly special memory.

A Doctor and A Farmer’s Husband: The Chickens Scratch

ChickenScratch

By: Stephen Jackson

Note: This blog is written from the perspective of the off-farm worker here at Machaven.  My wife is the actual farmer.  This blog is intended to give a little insight from my point of view into what goes on and some of the hard lessons we’ve learned.  Through it all, though, we’ve been grateful to be here.  

I wasn’t expecting to see her there.  Looking into each other’s eyes, I was aware she was seated in the driver’s seat of the Tahoe. I was standing outside the open driver’s side door.  She simply looked at me.  I said the first clever thing that came to mind, “Hi.” In reply, she inclined her head a little to the side.  Quickly, I regrouped and tried a second clever line.  “So, um, I guess you want to drive?”  Nothing.  I hadn’t heard her get in the truck.  I had left the driver’s side door open while I loaded a few things I was taking to work into the rear cargo area of the Tahoe. I had only been gone about 15 seconds.  I regarded her a little more closely and had to admit to myself that she was quite pretty.  In the way that I hurry, I left the door open and strolled casually around the front of the Tahoe to the passenger side door.  I gently opened the door and climbed in the seat.  As I brought my head up, I realized she had swiveled her head around to meet my gaze, her expression impossible to read.  I figured now was the time to make my move.  So, I slowly extended both hands to hold her.  At this she quickly flapped her way out of the Tahoe onto the ground and strutted away, the chicken not caring that she had made me a couple minutes late for work.

At Machaven farm, we have free-range chickens.  Prior to actual farming, whenever I heard the phrase “free-range chickens,” I always imagined a bunch of chickens out in a large, open pasture, clucking, picking, and scratching around, living an easy and care-free life.  I imagined them forming cliques, with a few sad chickens off to the side, not quite fitting in with the rest. The reality is a little different.  Our chickens do cluck around, pecking up insects and scratching up the ground.  I do see them forming cliques and hanging out in their own groups.  The big difference is that they stay a little closer to us and our house for protection.  Free-range to us means the chickens have no boundaries whatsoever.  We provide them with food and water and a place to roost, more of a suggestion than a rule.  They are literally everywhere. We find eggs all over the place.  We have Easter-egg style hunts every day to find the fresh eggs – under bushes, behind the seat of our farm truck, where the goats sleep.  We find an occasional egg in the middle of our gravel driveway, suggesting not much planning on the chicken’s part.

An occasional chicken will find her way into the Tahoe, if I’m not careful.  Inexperienced me would angrily chase her from the front of the Tahoe to the back, from one side to the other, me climbing over seats and saying non-Sunday words.  A cooler head makes extracting the confused chicken a little less cumbersome.

Chickens turn out to be quite resourceful.  Every animal eats chickens and predators abound, so I appreciate the wily way they find new and unexpected places to hide themselves and their eggs.

One day my wife and kids went to a nearby restaurant they frequented.  My wife inquired about the chicken who appeared to have taken up residence at the back of the restaurant.  A whole set-up, not previously there, had been put in place for her.  The friendly waitress told my wife about how the chicken had simply shown up one day.  They had named her Mother Maybelle and even started an Instagram page for her.  She sure looked like one of ours.  We began finding other chickens in various places all over the southern part of the county.  The places my wife would frequent.  One day I ambled past my wife’s car and heard the familiar scratching sound of a hen.  The sound was a little off in that it was the scratching of a chicken’s feet on plastic.  I began to investigate and found the cacophonous chicken tucked away in the underside of the car.  I discovered my wife’s car had a small hidey-hole in the undercarriage plastic of the vehicle.  A chicken and a few eggs were warmly nestled in this spot.  As the implications of this dawned on me, I now understood how Machaven Farm had unwittingly been sprinkling chickens throughout the county. I could only imagine the terror those poor chickens felt bumping up the driveway, then the acceleration of my wife’s electric vehicle eventually clocking 60 mph on the country roads around our farm, as the chicken weaved, turned, and bounced on the pot-holed back roads for which rural areas are famous.  The winds alone enough to ruffle every feather.  I could imagine the chicken, only too happy to extract herself from this precarious situation once the car stopped, pioneering a new residence in the closest place a chicken might find to make a new, safer home.  Now we check under the car every time we leave the house.

Instead of the confines of the coop, the chickens mainly roost in trees.  Right around dusk the chickens awkwardly launch themselves onto the lowest branch of the tree outside our door, hopping up to higher and higher limbs to get to just the right roosting spot.  The wind chimes on the lowest branch can be heard clanging every time a chicken calls it a night.  There is even a group of 10-to-15 chickens who roost on the top step outside our back door, just off our living room.  The door is a simple a wood frame with panes of glass from top to bottom.  At night, ten-to-twenty pairs of eyes stare into the living room, some watching me, which is weird, others watching TV with us.

The ever-present clucking, cock-a-doodle-doo-ing, chicken poop, eggs, and the chickens themselves have me thinking that a farm is not truly a farm without chickens.  They are the one, ever-present reminder that we are not in a city neighborhood, that other creatures inhabit our land and depend on us, more even than we have grown to depend on them.  I would recommend some amount of chickens roaming freely around any farm.  They are a small part of nature, normally industrialized, that have scratched their way into our day in many ways. I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Even if they make me late for work sometimes.

A Doctor and a Farmer’s Husband, I Grab the Goat by the Horns

GoatHorns

By: Stephen Jackson

Driving down the rivulet riddled driveway coming home from work, the stress and worry of my day job are soaked up by the dense foliage of the plant life on my small farm in rural North Carolina.  I should be honest.  My day job is really my only job.  I live on a functioning farm and jokingly refer to myself as a farmer.  My wife does the actual farming.  I just like the moniker.

I know that I’m not unique among doctors.  In fact, my neighbor, though retired, spent years actively farming and practicing as a clinician. Though most people seem to associate doctors with country clubs and fancy cars, I like to drive my beat-up Tahoe and pass my free time among chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, and plenty of open space.

Both my wife and I grew up in small cities, with only occasional interactions with farms (my mom’s parents were farmers). In our nearly 19 years of marriage we have lived in a city environment.  In the years leading up to our buying a farm, the seed of doing so began to take root and grow.  It began, initially, as a way of raising our children in an environment of responsibility, nature, and a true understanding of how food arrives on the table, from pig to pork chop.  Since moving to the farm, it turns out my city-bred wife found her legs running around our farm, raising and caring for our animals and children.  A nurturer by nature, my wife relishes in the daily needs of our small farm.  Starting small, with something like 50 chickens, the know-how of keeping animals alive amidst the predators of these green acres coupled with our limited knowledge coming into this affair has been hard-won.  Just a few years later we have way more than 50 chickens (I’ve lost count), goats (four generations now), sheep, and pigs both pot-bellied and for-pork.  Add in some production of plants and herbs, and the ingredients are just about right for our family recipe.

One partner working off-farm with one on the farm is nothing new.  We are fortunate that we have been able to operate this way to get things started on our farm.  We could simply have lived amidst the growing bush on our land and I would have been content.  What we did not expect was the wonderful, open-armed community of farmers and local-farm friendly businesses that truly helped us get started.

If I’m being fair to myself, I do some farming.   Maybe farm hand is a more accurate moniker.  I help hunt for and gather eggs sometimes.  I lift things and transfer them from one place to another.  I have processed chickens, help band (i.e. castrate) a goat, and… you know what, let’s just move on.  Probably most importantly, I get to push the goats’ heads back through the fencing when they get stuck.

Occasionally, one of our goats, surrounded by lush plant-life food and store-bought goat vittles aplenty, decides that the plants on the other side of the cow-paneled fencing might taste better.  So, she will stick her head through the fence, nibble the other-side-of-the-fence forbidden fruit, and promptly attempt to draw her head and horns back through the fence.  At this point she realizes she is stuck and can’t quite figure out the Cracker Barrel puzzle of how to untangle her predicament.  Enter me.  Now, if you’ve never tried to ease a goat’s head through the opening in a fence panel, don’t worry.  You’re not missing out because it can’t be done.  There is no “ease.”  The goat does not understand my intentions are friendly and fights me with all the ferocity mother nature supplies.  Saying soothing words while firmly grabbing the horns and, against much resistance, gently guiding her head backward through the fence only earns me a disgruntled glare and a quick prancing away by the goat as if I’ve wronged her in some way.  Still, I pat myself on the back, the success of freeing her being its own reward.

Such is farm life, well-removed from the sanitized exam and operating rooms of medicine.  Stress?  Worry?  Sure.  Most jobs have them and my “day job” is no exception.  However, as I slowly bounce the Tahoe down the driveway toward the house, I look forward to the unpredictable, frustrating, and endearing life of farming.  Wait. There is a sheep in the driveway.  Gotta go!

You should ride two horses with one ass…so long as you have chosen the right horses.

Well, here it is again, another January 1st, another reminder to reflect on last year’s resolution, another chance to get it right.

Last year I made one simple resolution “Stop trying to ride two horses with one ass.”  What I meant was, stop trying to do so much.  I didn’t do it but I don’t consider it a failure.  I actually consider this a huge step forward.  As I tried to slow down, I realized that the less I have to do, that is meaningful to me, the more depressed and lost I feel.  I become negative and judgmental.  I’m not as good of a mother and wife, I don’t work as hard.  So, I’m revising last year’s resolution (I can do that if I want.) and adopting it this year as, “having harsh discernment.”

I’m old enough to know what really makes me happy and what doesn’t.  I’m going to be saying “no” a lot more this year.  In what is apparently selfish there is selflessness.  In saying “no” I make space for doing my best as a mother, being a good partner to my husband, a good daughter and sister, making something outside of my family, being a good friend to good friends, and contributing to my community which is what the distillation of my happiness looks like.  I think having harsh discernment will not resolve my issue of riding two horses with one ass but in finally naming those two horses, obligation and purpose I can happily move forward into 2020.

Giddy up folks!  Happy New Year!

I Heart Excel and Pigs

I have a deep and unabiding love for all things spreadsheet.  From my personal budget to how much my chickens ate last month and their expected consumption for next month, I put it into a spreadsheet.  So, when we needed to decide if raising Tamworth pigs, one of the oldest rare breeds, was something that would be profitable it seemed like the perfect excuse to make another spreadsheet.  It’s pretty generic.  So, I thought it might be helpful to others if they are trying to decide if raising pigs could be profitable for them.  Just plug your numbers into the highlighted cells and all the calculations are done for you. Here it is:

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1fb5IbvFGopWKcnuRs8xXoPEaFKz5NAgKXsSbC-YeEHM/edit?usp=sharing

 

 

 

 

What Life Really Looks Like

One of the reasons I started this blog is to share what took way too long for me to figure out that “It’s okay.”

The stylized, perfected families every single one of us sees on Facebook and Instagram, especially around the holidays, aren’t real. I know it but I still internalize it a bit with every posed, rosey cheeked, perfectly quaffed picture I see and a little part of me aspires to that fake ideal.

So, here’s my first in my weekly installment of “What Life Really Looks Like”. This is us UNEDITED. The most important part is that every single one of us is relaxed and happy in this space. Stephen is catching up on his work, I’m working on a plan for our spring planting, and the girls are happily creating art on giant pieces of paper in the floor. There’s marker on the hardwoods and dog fur, the table is a mess but that will easily be cleaned up later. My stomach isn’t twisted in knots worrying about it and IT’S OKAY.