“What you have to understand, Eva, is that if you have livestock, you are bound to have dead stock.”
I was on the phone with my youngest brother Brian, visiting about his artisan farming operation in northern New Mexico. I always love it when Brian gets into his darkly comic voice. He has at various times worked in restaurants and grocery stores, at corporations and small businesses, at schools and even the highway department. He has made me laugh at his horrible work experiences in all these settings, but the material that has surprised and amused me most are his experiences as a farmer.
It’s important to apologize for my limitations as a writer here. Often, when I try to share a funny story, people will tell me the story made them sad. I hope that will not be the case this time, but (Dear Reader) you have been forewarned.
Before diving into Brian’s farmer wisdom, I think it best to offer a bit of context on the man. When he was in high school, he was a musician. He was such a gifted performer that a retired band master gave him a college scholarship for “just being himself.” Brian is the only person I know who has ever gotten such an award.
Brian has also read everything you have heard of but never read yourself. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, he’s read it. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, it’s one of his favorites. Asimov, Heinlein, and Vonnegut—he can discuss them all.
He lived in Roswell for a brief time years ago. Once he came downstairs at my house and said, “I have a testimony of shame. I have now watched movie adaptations of all of Jane Austen.” That was partly my fault. I own them, and he had managed to work his way through everything else in my video collection until all that was left were BBC productions of Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion.
Now Brian has a small but going concern called Unique Le’ Natural in Aztec, New Mexico. He and his wife Heather raise chickens and turkeys and quail and ducks and goats and sheep and dogs and cats and vegetables. They also create lotions and soaps that they take with them when they sell their goods at farmer’s markets all over their region.
His comment about dead stock came during a conversation in which we were discussing his agricultural endeavors. Brian being in agriculture is completely unprecedented. Of the four children of my parents, I (the only girl) was the single one who was a card-carrying member of the Future Farmers of America. In high school I had far more in common with Napoleon Dynamite than my little brother Brian ever would. I quickly learned that I did not want to live the farm life. I am much more comfortable with chickens arranged in a grocery store display fridge than with them clucking and pecking and squawking. Once, when Mother and I went to see Brian and Heather, they had to prepare a raft (if that is an appropriate word) of chickens for sale. They had a barn and equipment set up to mercifully and quickly kill and clean the birds, but I can tell almost nothing about this since I stood over a hundred yards from the barn door watching my mother, my brother, and my sister-in-law move about purposefully and mysteriously while all around me the first snow of winter was gently falling. I realize that my squeamishness about killing animals should make be a vegetarian, but it doesn’t. I love how they look when alive and how they taste after slaughter, but I want nothing to do with blood, guts, or gore.
Brian and Heather sometimes butcher chickens for friends, and they make clear they don’t have the equipment to butcher large chickens, great fat hens. They can easily butcher small chickens, six or eight pounds. Their friends say they understand. Nonetheless, they bring chickens as big as turkeys and shrug in a mystified way when reminded of the size problem. So…Brian and Heather have to butcher and clean and pluck them entirely by hand, without the benefit of mechanisms designed to make the job cost effective. They do it because they love their friends. But, they hate those big, fat chickens. They also hate the ducks. “Ducks are rapists, Eva,” Brian says. Evidently some scientist did a bunch of research about what Brian himself has witnessed. He tells me some truly nasty stuff I will not detail here. It’s too gross! Google it if you must, but keep your safe search on. “Ducks are horrible.”
I say, “Well, they’re pretty tasty.”
“What?” Brian says, sounding a little incredulous.
“I said, ducks are tasty, when properly prepared.”
“Oh, Eva, I have known too much of ducks to ever want to partake of their flesh.”
He goes on to explain how goats can be cantankerous and mean and difficult to raise, but that sheep are on a whole other level.
“When a sheep wakes up in the morning,” he says, “that sheep doesn’t think, What shall I eat today, or what shall I drink? It thinks, How can I manage to die today? Do I feel lousy enough to just flop over and stick my feet in the air, or is there some other horrible possibility ahead? Sheep have this weird digestive tract that is made so that if they get into the wrong position, they can drown in their own stomach acids. Sheep even have this copper need. If they don’t get exactly the right amount of copper, neither too little nor too much, they will have seizures. They will flop onto their side and stare up at you with one baleful eye and you can hear them thinking. Soon, I will be in the bliss, gone to the great green pasture in the sky, but you, my farmer friend, will see me convulsing like this in endless nightmares to wake in a miserable and guild-ridden sweat.”
You see how this is funny, right? Maybe it’s just me.
Brian and Heather both have to keep day jobs in order to do their farm gig. I have to say I deeply admire them, giving so much to this very old way of life, and giving so much back to their community. Though they butcher some of their animals for market, they love them all. They have a three-legged cat (among several other cats) and a new puppy (among nine other dogs). Heather is tender-hearted, and the people at the animal shelter know that. I suspect when they get a creature that absolutely no one else would consider adopting, they give her a call. She’s that kind of generous. Brian will grumble about every new addition, but the next thing you know the new puppy is sleeping in his lap.
I like that at least one of my parents’ children has gone back into agriculture. We come from a long line of farmers and ranchers on both sides. The thing is, the earth and the citizens of earth come from the Creator. His good design is everywhere, reminding Brian during the sunrise feedings and the evening milking, everywhere around him is the mystery and bounty of creation. It’s all good and it’s all from God. (Even, dare I say it, ducks.)