Farming the mountains

(Photos by Auggie McGillicuddy)

(Photos by Auggie McGillicuddy)

Jen Holz follows the rhythm of farm life where all works in concert


Eight feet up, cool in a cocoon of trembling green leaves, with heat waves swerving around us, we perched on delicate limbs. There we watched the others sweat in the fields, picking rows of okra, cotton, corn, squash. There, above it all, we were picking peaches. This was a job for the smallest and easiest to hoist, least likely to break the upper limbs as we swung up to tip the highest fruits with little-kid hands, picking sweet, fully ripe, orange-cheeked orbs.

We would walk by the orchards for weeks before, breathing in hopefully, searching with our noses for the sticky scent of ripe fruit. Then one day the air would burst with sugar, and we’d scramble up, barefoot, and fill our wicker baskets.


The Southern plains were easy farming. Gran said plowing was like cutting butter. Crops elbowed up eagerly on acres of sandy loam that surrendered itself nine months a year as cattle ambled behind barbed wire, chewing their cuds, distant and aloof while we farmed dirt. Easy. Simple.

Today, I look outside at our gardens: dry ragged vines, gates hanging open for chickens, goats and sheep to scratch and pull. Our pastures are tangled with brambles and burdock. Farming here is not so easy. The ground does not yield. The sun lurks behind mountains, hides for days while we look up, hopeful. We wrangle rocks, haul manure, coax green spouts out of unruly ground that lies dormant six months a year. Farming the mountains is not like farming the Southern plains. Not easy, not simple. Beautifully complex.

We do not rely on dirt. Each year the frost heaves up a new crop of rocks, which we nominally clear from the gardens but not the pastures. Instead, we layer wagonloads of manure to form a thick, tenacious carpet. Without it, our pastures would be too boney to support sheep, and they would erode.

It is important, therefore, not to graze ruminants before the pastures are green. We fence off the upper pasture and feed grain and hay until May. During this time, we haul manure up to the high pastures. Meanwhile, we leave the garden gates wide open and invite ruminants and chickens to churn up the soil, pick at old seeds, nip new insects, and clear old vines.

chics-HZT-Chickens are especially good at clearing weed seeds and aerating new soil. They enjoy taking sunny dust baths in fresh manure. They continue to work as we haul new layers of manure to the garden. While we do occasionally rototill, we rely most on livestock and the manure/hay mix for garden fertility and workability. We leave the gates open until it is time to plant seedlings.

We keep two gardens: One is low, near the pond, where we grow most of our produce. The other is higher up, near the chicken coop, on bonier soil. This is where we grow all our squash varieties. Squash do not play well with the other vegetables. They splay their broad leaves, shading and crowding out less assertive plants. Years ago I banished them to the chicken garden. There, they enjoy extra hours of sun on their southern plateau.

The chickens’ garden is a raised bed of ruminant manure topped with aged chicken manure. We let it age in heaps before layering it on the garden, since poultry manure runs hotter.

Keeping two gardens not only allows us to remove rude squash vines from our other crops, but it also allows us to diversify garlic locations to accommodate for different weather events. Some years, the garlic does best on lower ground, Others, it is safer on higher, drier ground. Monoculture is risky. Diversity works.

I like a mixed flock. Home-bodies like Buff Orpingtons and Japanese Bantams stay close to the coop inside the run and eat kitchen scraps and grain, while Red Jungle Fowls police and protect beyond the fences, eating a diet of mostly forage. The Buffs lay more eggs. The RJFs alert the flock when predators approach. RJF hens are also excellent broodies. The other hens lay their eggs in shared nests for the RJF hens to raise.

Goats and sheep are complimentary grazers: Goats graze up. Sheep graze down. You may coerce a sheep to eat your brambles, but it’s not her first choice and it sticks in her wool. Sheep prefer to mow the grass and keep a pasture green. Goats are great to clear stickery hillsides and borders.

The barn swallows appeared today. I expected they might. Last night we watched a single bat jag along the pond, harvesting a new hatch. Bats and barn swallows usually appear about the same time and I often have a hard time telling one from another except for their different flight patterns: Swallows fly in neat controlled swoops while bats zig and zag.

They both dance along the surface of the water, just skimming the tiny insects which hover there. They are both excellent at controlling the insect populations. I like the barn swallows in spite of advice to expel them from my barn. They swoop down on strangers who enter, but they tolerate us very nicely –– I suppose they can tell friend from trespasser.

A small gang of Red Jungle Fowls has invaded my barn, which they do each spring so they can brood their clutch of chicks. I let them have the back stall until the chicks hatch. Then they’ll move out and I’ll retrieve the chicks to the brooder light in the house. I usually take the hen as well. One year, an RJF rooster named Tyrone (originally named Thai, the presumed origin of the Jungle Fowls) raised a clutch. He is still a welcome guest in my kitchen.

The RJFs dig and scratch the manure for bugs, clearing the ground even as the swallows patrol the air. They’ll move out as the barn floor is cleared and their chicks hatch out.

It all works in concert. Our livestock are not ambling behind barbed wire, not off in the distance. They are as integral to garden and pasture management as the gardens and pastures are integral to the overall health of the farm. This is not monoculture, not neat. It is lively.

Petunia follows her nose along a cool breeze and finds me spreading manure under peach trees. She saunters up and tilts her wooly head just so, that I might scratch behind her ears. I search for ticks. Instinctively, I look to the pond where a flock of barn swallows are zooming wide circles. I look to the barn where an RJF rooster is on patrol. We’ll shear in three days, the barn will be nearly clear, the chicks will hatch, bugs will be eaten by swallows, bats, and hungry Red Jungle Fowl. The cycle continues. Complex. Beautiful. Easy.