words by: Shawn + Beth Dougherty
Mid-March. The view from our kitchen window is black-and-white, like a snapshot from the 1940s. There is the barnyard, where the most recent snowfall has been trailed by someone delivering a bucket of skim milk and squash peelings to three young pigs. Beyond that, bare pasture is punctuated by a line of fence posts and barbed wire; still further are steep woods mounting to the high ridge of Rex Hill. Mid-day dinner is over, but the comforting smell of fried potatoes and onions, ham, and buttered toast lingers after the last dishes have been washed and put away. The family is settled by the wood stove to work quietly for a few hours before the evening chores draw us outside again. There is coffee in the pot on the stove.
Our farm is settled into the lull of waiting. Winter still has us in its grip. At noon the thawing patches on the south side of the house and barn speak of warm relief to come, but the ground is still cold, even frozen, and the only green things to be seen are the somber dark greens of hemlock, pine, and spruce.
January may start the year on the calendar, but on the farm, where winter is an annual death laying to rest the efforts of the previous year, January is a dark month, tucked under a blanket of snow or encased in an iron frost. February coaxes sugar out of the seemingly lifeless trees as an amusement to lighten the days of waiting. March, encased in cold mud, is a month of stolid endurance. When the life of the soil is inaccessible, then animal life—human, livestock, and wild—continues on the principle of hope.
So this is the real slack-end of the year, the quiet time before strengthening daylight restarts all the business of Nature. Right now everything is hidden under a thin layer of snow, marked out in trails of muddy footprints.
Written in Mud
Mud is our primary crop in March, coming up in patches wherever work is being done. By the woodshed, a layer of chips has been churned into a relief map by the feet of boys splitting firewood, a modest mountain range traced over with the rut of the wheelbarrow that carries split wood up to the house. Outside the barn door, the cows coming in to be milked take their last few steps through knee-deep mud. In the kitchen garden, bedraggled hens step fussily over the decay of last summer’s mulch, beady eyes cocked for the smallest sprouting chickweed, the least last seed of nasturtium, winter squash, or corn. And from where the cows drink at the spring, trails reach out like the arms of a muddy octopus headed to late-winter pastures.
Ten years ago, mud covered a lot more of this farm. Under previous owners, field-kept hogs stripped it bare, leaving the unprotected soil to run away in rivulets of rainwater. Traffic of humans, animals, and tractors churned the naked ground into mud. The sun baked the ruts of tires and prints of boots and hooves to concrete; then with the next rain, everything turned back to mud. When we came, the land was struggling to protect itself under an armor of blackberry, greenbriar, and wild rose. On this March day we can still see remains of that armor: here and there clumps of cane, like twists of barbed wire, trace black scribbles on the snow.
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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.