Sunday, August 16, 2009

Home for the Harvest

We are in the middle of Dog Days here and it's hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. But it won't last long. It signals the beginning of the harvest for farmers here in Kentucky and across the Midwest.

Millions of pounds of burley tobacco will be cut over the next month and hung in barns to cure to a deep red color before stripping and baling it for market in Oct-Nov. Even if you don't use tobacco, the musky, earthy smell of cured tobacco in a barn leaves a taste in your nostrils and gets in your blood. It forms as a habit and calls you back to it every autumn.

Spring calves are pulled off their mothers and weaned, wormed and given their final round of shots. They are put on feed to bulk them out before going to market in 2-3 months. Seed stock bulls and heifers are cut from the herd and put on special feeds to bulk them up as breeders in the Spring.

Final cuttings of alfalfa and grass hays are harvested and stored away for winter. I have one field in Sudan-Sorghum hybrid grass to cut yet and then sew it back to wheat for Spring hay.

Thousands of acres of corn are being chopped as silage and put in silos for winter feed (especially on dairy farms as it is a high energy feed to produce more milk in winter). The remainder of the corn will be harvested as grain in Sep-Oct followed by the soybean harvest in Oct-Nov. Wheat was harvested back in July (if it was raised for grain, May if for hay).

But it's not all hard work to pay the bills; some of it is fun stuff as well in the Fall.

Right now is the last harvest of light, clear sweet summer honey before the asters bloom (and the bees begin to make a dark, strong tasting honey from the necter). Sorghum cane is cut and run through mills and winter stores of molasses are made. You can buy either of these commercially, but it's just not the same quality when mass produced for commerce as it is when made by hand locally.

Apples are getting ripe all over and their harvest has begun. Apple pies, cobblers, jellies and butters will soon be the order of the day around these parts. (Not to mention the distilling of a bit of good ol' hard cider for those who like a sip of such by the fireplace in winter.)

Pawpaws, also known as "Appalachian bananas," are also in season right now. They grow wild and many folks make preserves and such from them. Persimmons will follow in Oct and are ready after the first hard frost (if you try them before then, they are so sour your pucker will almost make your lips bleed.)

Gardens are winding down and the last thrust of sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes and the like are being harvested and canned or frozen for winter. Pumpkins and other squashes are also ready for the harvest now through first frost. I usually can or freeze all I want and bust the rest on the ground for the cattle; they love them and it's a very high energy food that increases their gains of fat against the pending winter.

I will turn a fallow plot to put out some turnips this week, I suppose, as they can be harvested after the frost. Maybe set out a few cabbages, too, for good measure. Potatoes and sweet potatoes will be dug, dried and stored away for use this winter.

Sep-Dec is the social season as well in our farming community. The other nine months people are too busy with their own work to waste much time yakking and yammering around. You will see groups of men, women and children all gathered to trade work, news and stories with their neighbors throughout the harvest. Moving like roving bands from one farm to the next until the harvest is done across the community.

It is where the fabric of our heritage is quilted together and passed on to the next generation. It is where a strong work ethic is etched into the character of our youth. It is also where lifelong friendships are forged (sometimes leading to marriage somewhere down the road)

Technologies and techniques in farming are exchanged. Barters are often made as a form of local currency; lumber will be traded for livestock or feed, hunting dogs will be traded for a good rifle, a rare pocketknife may be traded against some other heirloom or five gallons of sorghum or honey. More than one new business venture has been born over a stripping room table in a tobacco barn.

By the first of December, things are slowing down a good bit. Loose ends and chores are tied up and finished in preparation for the end of the year. People get together around stoves in little country stores, around fires in hunting camps and around dinner tables in warm houses.

Men move to the den to talk of men's things, sip something and smoke while women drift off to discuss whatever it is women discuss (probably conspiracies to make men behave better, but I can't swear to it).

There are many in modern society that would see this as archaic, maybe sexist, but we don't. We are simple enough to understand that men and women are just different; it's a natural law. You can't break natural laws, only break yourself against them. Even in a complicated society, the social needs of men and women, while equal in life, are as different as their genders.

Children find something to amuse themselves; just glad for a playmate that doesn't have fleas. The olders boys and girls sneak of in search of mistletoe to park under (or so I've heard).

It's also a time of great reflection and recollection of those who have gone on before us. It is where children sit around on the floor and listen wide-eyed at tales of the way things were "back when I was growing up" or "back in Grandpa's day." Morals and traditions are taught. They learn about their ancestors they never met and of history to pass it along to their children when the time comes. We don't raise children here, we raise men and women.

Collectively, we take a break from about mid-December until the first week of the New Year. It is a time for friends and family.

The cycle then starts over: there are plans to be made, seed to order, new regulations and training to learn, and equipment to service before planting time in April-May. Calves begin dropping in Feb-Mar and that must be monitored for signs of calf-pulling or other forms of distress. Cattle are caught up and worked in preparation for release back on pasture and the breeding season. And on and on it goes, but soon (sooner every year that passes it seems), it will be August again and Christmas right around the corner.

There is plenty to be said for the urban life, with it's opportunities and convenience, I suppose. But for me, none of that could ever replace the sense of belonging I have right here.

Dog Days...


Dawn said...

I miss my farm ...

45 days and I am reminded every morning with the sounds of traffic, the smells of exhaust and the dingy overcast of the urbanized air ... *sigh* I'm homesick my ol' friend. I belong in your post!

Mike said...

You're young and have time to get back to it. Hopefully in a better situation next time around, though. It takes all the fun out of it if you're surviving it instead of living it.

Kentucky Dreamer said...

"There is plenty to be said for the urban life, with it's opportunities and convenience, I suppose. But for me, none of that could ever replace the sense of belonging I have right here."

The life I'm used to here isn't so different from what you describe but it's those little differences that I miss the most. I'm surrounded by thousands of acres of corn and a good amount of soybean too. Both look as good this year as I've ever saw them look.

Did I tell you I walked out of Pizza Hut a while back because they don't put banana peppers on pizza? Pizza just ain't pizza without the peppers.

A good story, Mike. I enjoyed it.

Mike said...

Actually, this was from a letter I posted to a British fellow; client and friend.

Well, it sounds like PH needs their head office called. Is it even legal to withhold yellow peppers from pizza? Somehow that seems un-Italian American or somethin'.