words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
We are easing into winter under the slate-gray skies characteristic of this area. The last autumn leaves glow like sparks beneath the ashes of the old year. It is hard to believe so many months are now behind us, done with as completely as if they had never happened. But the turkey waiting to go into the smokehouse on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is a solid reminder of the long hot weeks of summer when he patrolled the barnyard. The sweet potatoes that were just speculation in May are now an orange heap on the damp root cellar floor. Turnips and pumpkins—winter food for humans and pigs both—fill a corner of the west barn where, in July, the banty hen hid her stolen nest.
November 1st marks a change of seasons on our place; it’s the day the ram comes home from the monastery farm. He hasn’t seen his ewes since March when the first lambs were arriving; at that time, we sent him to spend the summer with the cows. All through the hot months, he followed the herd, grazing burdock, thistle, and Queen Anne’s lace, hanging out companionably with one of the steers or a young heifer. At noon he’d find a shady spot and kick at flies. Now he’s excited to be among the ewes again, and we hope he doesn’t knock down any fence. There will be a different order in the flock, and a sense of purpose, while he is among us. Even as we finish the year that is behind us, the stage is being set for the year that is coming.
Maybe that is really what farm life is about. Giving thought to the future is built into farming; each year, as we take what we need to live, provision must be made for future years: not just for our own needs, but for family, friends, neighbors-—even others, folks beyond the edges of our imaginations. People will need to be fed as long as there are human beings on earth, and farmers have a responsibility for seeing that the land is still capable of nourishing our remotest descendants.
So we keep cows that turn grass into milk and sheep that control weeds. In the fall garden, we plant cover crops in most of the beds: green blankets of frost-hardy oats or wheat, turnips, or daikon radish. Their leaves and roots will keep the soil in place under autumn rains, freeze in winter, then decay in spring to add fertility to the soil. Under the high tunnel in the kitchen garden, spinach, kale, beets, and carrots are sheltered from frost. In the deep of winter, we’ll sweep snow from its arched roof and dig a path to the door so we can enjoy fresh green salads. South of the high tunnel, a carpet of straw covers the long bed where next year’s garlic hasn’t waited until spring to start pushing up its strong green shoots…
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Shawn and Beth Dougherty live in eastern Ohio, where their home farm is 17 acres designated by the state as ‘not suitable for agriculture’. Using grass as the primary source of energy, they raise dairy and beef cows, sheep, farm-fed hogs, and a variety of poultry, producing most of their food, and feed, on the farm. Concerned that farming is too often dependent upon multiple off-farm resources, from feed, fuel, and fertilizer to water and electricity, their ongoing project is to discover and test the time-honored means by which farming may be done with a minimum of off-farm inputs. Their research has led them to identify the daily conversion of grass into milk by dairy ruminants as a key to whole-farm sustainability. They are the authors of The Independent Farmstead, Chelsea Green Press 2016.