This article was first published on trailblazingwriters.com
I call him Michael. He was walking along the road on a hot and heavily humid day in August. We see a lot more cows and tractors on the road than people walking, joggers or cyclists. We might see one or two people walking the road every year.
My wife Sue first spotted Michael about half a mile away. We met him at the end of the driveway when he walked past the 100-year-old farmhouse. The house has seen many people walk by in the wilting heat, most of them before the blacktop was laid. Sue asked if he needed help or a ride somewhere. He said no, then lowered himself slowly to sit at side of the road in the shade of a longstanding pine tree. We gave him water. Sue asked if she could cook him a burger. “It’ll take a while because the beef has to thaw.” she said. “If you’ll make the burgers, I’ll eat them.” Michael responded.
Michael had been at the church up the road waiting to meet the pastor, but he didn’t show. He had left his backpack there and was walking to the nearest town 4 miles away. He was going to return to get it later. I offered to drive him back to the church to get his backpack and into town when he had eaten. He was fine with that.
When we returned with his backpack, Michael and I sat on the shade of porch and talked. I talked, mostly, Michael was a man of few words. I shared what life was like on a regenerative farm, he shared that he was born in North Carolina and had lived in Washington state. He didn’t offer where he lived now and I didn’t pry. I thought he might be homeless, but it was not my place to ask.
We sat and listened to the cicadas for a time, then Michael quietly asked why we farmed. I explained that Sue and my son were both cancer survivors and that it was important to us to grow nutritious food, not just for us but for our community. He nodded and fell into his own thoughts. A few minutes later he broke the silence again, asking if I liked football. We found something we could agree to disagree on. I was a Carolina Panthers fan and he was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. There was no trash talk, we talked about players and coaches past and present of the Steelers. Michael had words now.
The conversation came to a hammering halt when Sue brought out a tray of food and announced, “A meal fit for a king!”. There were two big burger patties, all the fixings and potatoes. Michael didn’t waste any time. I have only witnessed one other person eat a burger with such relish. My dad had been in the ICU and step-down unit for 10 days when I brought him a burger, he inhaled it. Michael ate two burgers in the time it took my dad to eat one.
When he had finished, Michael wiped his mouth, stood up and declared “I’m ready to go into town now.” As we were walking to the truck he threw up, then he threw up again. I asked if it had been a while since he’d eaten. “Yes” he answered and then he apologized for throwing up on the grass. “I’m sorry you haven’t eaten Michael.” “It’s ok.” He replied. “No it’s not.” I responded.
We drove in relative silence into town, La Ley 101.1 Spanish radio filling the void. He didn’t ask, but I shared that I listened to it so I could learn Spanish. He had nothing to say about that. I think he was embarrassed about getting sick or maybe all his effort and attention went into trying not to throw up in the truck so there was nothing left for words.
When I dropped him off, I handed Michael a $20 bill and wished him luck. He looked me in the eye briefly, thanked me and walked towards the woods at the back of the building. I wondered if he were heading toward the river to stay cool. I wondered where he would spend the night. I wondered if he would get meals the rest of the week.
I call him Michael, that is not his name. I named him as a result of a quote, attributed to John Bradford, that Sue shared with me when I returned home: “There, but for the grace of god, go I”.
My name is Michael.
Update April 13, 2021
Hunger is an epidemic. We are all only one job loss, illness, or accident away from needing help.
Michael is just one of many examples of hunger we have encountered in our community. Since moving to Coleridge, NC in 2014, we have made it a priority to donate our organically raised eggs and beef to families in need.
In 2020, Covid-19 increased the need. Friends told us about 3 local families that lost their jobs in March 2020. We began providing 9 dozen eggs and 3 lbs of beef to them every week. By July we realized we were in for the long haul and we began raising money via merchandise sales to help pay for the non-soy, organic chicken feed, our biggest expense, so we could continue. We raised enough to help provide them healthy food through March 2021.
The need is still strong in 2021. One local food pantry has gone from providing food to 30 families once a month pre-Covid to 50 families twice a month. in 2021 we're increasing our focus on food assistance. Our goal is to replace the income we received from sales to Chef & The Farmer and The Boiler Room restaurants, before Covid-19 shut them down, with income from merchandise sales. That;s not an easy task, we will need to increase t-shirt sales from 180 to 1300 annually.
We hope Chef & The Farmer opens again soon, but we really want the many people of our community that cannot afford to dine there, let alone afford to buy healthy, organically raised food at the grocery store, to enjoy delicious Pineywoods Heritage Beef. Merchandise sales in one way to reach that goal.
Mike Hansen lives and works at Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm.
Your mamma's calls are tinged with longing, her panic sharp in the darkness.
The light lifts into grey. Mamma's cries carry a convoy of anguish, of ache.
It’s not right.
Mamma is distant from the strength of the herd. Homeless.
I walk closer, the light betrays mamma's storm. You are the eye.
It’s not right.
You neglect mamma's nuzzles, unmoved by her tenderness.
Mamma swings her horns at my intrusion, defending you from harm already afflicted.
It’s not right.
Mamma calls to the herd in the distance. The herd is silent. Your eyes are silent.
Broken, my heart reaches quietly to mamma through a tunnel of soft words. Her wails heave higher.
It’s not right.
Mamma cleans you, comforting you, waiting for you to answer her, to rise. Mamma moves to the herd.
Mamma bends her head to a sister, who licks her ears, returning the comfort she has given you. A companion in her loss, in her anguish.
It’s not right.
Mamma is incomplete with the herd, baby. Mamma is incomplete with you.
It’s time baby. I lift you. Your fatal cold suffocates through me. I carry you away.
It’s not right.
I build. A home for you baby. Near the youngest pear. My dream: that your alliance will grow a fresh shoot, your essence endless in this family tree.
A sunken home, the shape of you. I arrange you with family:
Cedar and quartz to protect, pecans in place of mamma's milk, grass. A feather from guinea, a playmate for chase and chatter.
I have only tangled whisper and voided word to bequeath, baby. Please accept the only gift I have to give, to wrap you in the arms of your new mamma. Earth
Dung beetles are the strongest animals in the world. They can pull 1,141 times their body weight. That’s like a human pulling six fully loaded double-decker buses. They are found on every continent except for Antarctica.
Unlike the dung beetles I watched with curiosity as a kid in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) that would roll a ball of elephant dung much larger than themselves, the dung beetles in North Carolina are mainly tunneling (lay eggs in the soil beneath the cow pat) or dwelling (lay eggs in the cow pat). Tunneling dung beetles are the most beneficial to soil and pasture health. By burying cow poo as food for their young, they aerate, introduce organic matter, and cycle the nutrients that are present in cow dung to the soil. The dwelling beetles have the additional benefit that they compete for manure with horn flies that can irritate the cows.
Dung beetles are great for pastures. Studies have shown Japanese Millet yields increased 81% and crude protein in bearded wheatgrass increased by 118% when dung beetles were present compared to cow dung alone. Another study has shown that you’d have to apply 200 lbs of Nitrogen per acre to see similar yields of coastal bermudagrass with dung beetle activity. At January 2021 average Nitrogen prices, a healthy dung beetle population would equate to a saving of $88/acre. With our 25 acres of fescue pastures (fescue has similar fertilization requirements to bermudagrass), that equates to a saving of $2,200 each year. Let’s reduce that by 1/3 and say $1465/year because even if we didn’t have dung beetles we would have still have dung. My neighbors that have large commercial chicken houses would debate this. They use their chicken litter to fertilize their cattle pasture for free. My counter argument is that you must get deep in debt to build one 600ft commercial chicken house (most build 2 or more).
When we did our first soil sample after moving here in 2014, the analysis by NCSU indicated the soil had high levels of Zinc and Copper from chicken litter that had been used as fertilizer. They advised not to fertilize with chicken litter anymore because high rates had been shown to stunt root growth over time, making the plants less resilient during periods of drought.
Relying on our dung beetle pasture network, we don’t buy fertilizer. If we did, I would ask the following questions of farms I was considering buying manure-based fertilizer from:
What goes in must come out, in this case onto pastures, and these questions will give me the information to decide if the fertilizer has anything in it that does not belong in the soil, in the plants, in the animals that eat the plants and in the people that we provide food for.
Balancing Cattle welfare and Dung Beetle welfare.
Controlling flies around cattle herds helps decrease the chance of disease spread and increase the general comfort of cattle. Ear tags infused with insecticides or pour-on treatments (similar to flea control applications in dogs and cats) are widely used for fly control. The problem is both kill dung beetles when excreted through dung, although ear tags seem to kill fewer in the short term than pour-ons. Persistent use of either, however, can negatively affect long-term dung beetle populations. Pyrethroid, which is a natural extract of chrysanthemum flowers, can be equally devastating to dung beetle populations.
As I mentioned previously, a healthy dung beetle population competes for the same manure as flies. Fly control leads to dung beetle death which leads to fewer beetles competing with flies which in turn leads to more flies and more insecticides to control them. As you can see, insecticide use becomes a vicious cycle. Conversely, our dung beetle population is very healthy because we don't use insecticides. We have seen anecdotal evidence of lower populations of horn flies over the seasons, although without some kind of controlled testing it’s hard to say what the season-on-season impact is.
When fly pressure is at it’s highest, we use a product called Ecto-Phyte which is a combination aromatic compounds and essential oils that creates a vapor around the cattle that acts as a shield. It’s not cheap, but we are using less of it each year and keeping the dung beetles safe as well. Of course the Pineywoods don’t like the smell and according to Sue it’s quite a comical watching me sneak up on or chase the herd to get close enough to spray them!
In addition to flies, cattle occasionally get gastrointestinal parasites which require treatment. A product such as Ivermectin which treats both parasites and flies kills dung beetles. In this respect we are fortunate to raise Pineywoods Cattle. They have not lost their ability yo graze for medicine. We have quite a few black walnut trees growing at the edge of the woods that they have access to and it is not uncommon to witness them taking a bite of the leaves, branches or bark. Black Walnut contains the natural anti-parasitic, jugulone, that helps control gastrointestinal worms. We have not been able to find any research that indicates jugulone has an adverse impact on dung beetles, but judging by the dozens of walnut fly larvae we find feeding on the rotted hulls of walnuts, it’s unlikely to have any long-term impact on dung beetle populations, especially considering the limited amount of black walnut the cattle eat.
Rootin' around poo for science and love
One of my projects for 2021 is to figure out how to count dung beetle populations so we can start measuring population health over time and secondarily relate populations to the nutrient levels in soil samples. I've tried to document beetle activity in the past by uncovering the top of cow patties so I could photograph them. I have yet to get one photo. As soon as I open one up the beetles immediately bury into the ground. I'm going to have to recruit Sue for help this summer, I reckon if she can open up the patty and I can focus solely on the photo I might have a chance.
I'm sure Sue won't be able to resist her offer of help, especially after I show her this wonderful Valentines card I made for her in the pasture (see below). I don't know how she puts up with me...