Farmer John Writes: It Was Either a Cow or it Wasn’t

 In Farm News

Harvest Week 11, Deliveries of August 29th – September 2nd, 2023

The Crops

The melons are done. Now on to the tomatoes and the peak pepper harvests, and of course, more—a bewildering array of more, such as fennel, basil, and lettuce mix this week. On the topic of tomatoes—fabulous heirloom tomatoes are coming on now.

Pollo inspects the first harvest of heirloom tomatoes

We are thrilled with this season’s sweet corn. 

Interesting that a shareholder wrote us about how much she dislikes our sweet corn and not just this season’s but also that of past seasons. I’m not saying that she should like it, just that it’s interesting that she doesn’t like it, when so many other shareholders rave about it.

trophies of corn

Concepcion and Maythe harvest our biggest fennel ever

Most of the spinach, baby lettuce, cilantro, dill, radishes and arugula we seeded last week are already up, thanks to a timely rain. This bodes well for mid- and late September bounty.

The Soil and the Future

Pollo prepares next year’s sweet corn ground for seeding fall peas

We have had beautiful weather for preparing our fields for next year. We will most likely meet the goal of seeding all 30 fields with forage peas by the end of August. The peas will be knee-to-thigh-high by early October, making for more nutritious and abundant vegetables and herbs next year.

fall peas for soil life, soon in the ground

The Crew and the Weather

It was hot some days last week, very hot. The crew starts at 6:30. If the afternoon is sweltering, they are free to luxuriate in their air-conditioned home on the farmstead, and then put in some field time after dinner. Or we turn on the air conditioning in our shop where they can clean onions and garlic.

Shareholder Reply to Why Did It Happen?

(Note: I loved this from a shareholder—a brilliant distillation of last week’s Farm News.)

“This is a very interesting topic.  I realized long ago that I can think for a long time about doing something (e.g getting up from a chair.)  Sometimes I do it after having thought about it for a while and sometimes I do it without ever really having thought about it.  The other day I was sitting in a chair and I knew I should get up but I didn’t know how to actually do it instead of just thinking about it.  After a while I decided to just stop trying to make mysef do it.  Instead I decided to just sit there and see what would happen.  It only took a few seconds and then I got up.”

How Pretty, Their Herd

I recently met an amiable neighbor, Sarah Borchardt, who is a dairy farmer along with her other family members at AF-AYR Farm. They breed Ayrshire cattle and milk about 160 Ayrshire cows twice a day. I have read stellar write-ups about the farm in farm magazines, and I have heard from other neighbors that the family treats their cows like treasures. Check out their website and Facebook page to see their beautiful cattle.

I learned today that one of Sarah’s jobs related to dairying is clipping the hair on cows—making them even more beautiful, more sculpted for the show competitions that occur throughout the country. I had forgotten all about clipping cows until Sarah’s role with it was introduced to me. 

I then remembered back to when, besides clipping our own cows, my dad used to go around and clip cows for hire in the community. He also grew seed oats and sold them to the local farmers, and painted silo roofs for hire, but these two side jobs are extraneous to the story. I just thought you would find this broader picture of my dad interesting, as it reflects how the community used to flourish in a synergy of social life and odd jobbing. Remembering further, he also used to sell HandyMan Jacks on the side. We would pick them up at the long-since-demolished train station in Beloit, wrapped in burlap. I’ll add here that many people told me that my dad really just liked to go around and visit with his neighbors, and the odd jobs were opportunities to get to know them better.

Now back to my thoughts about clipping cows. My mom gave us haircuts in the 50’s, but with clippers that were designed for giving people haircuts. In my grade school class, several of the boys got haircuts with cow clippers. This was a matter of some interest to my classmates and me, what sort of clipper cut our hair, though it was never divisive the way grooming or fashion clothing can create competing cliques in school today. We didn’t hold it against the boys who got their hair cut with cow clippers—we just found it interesting.

I was excited to learn that Sarah clips cows professionally. Imagine prettying up those cows for show time. I will ask to see the clippers that she uses; they are probably special.

I admire people who can look at a cow and make an assessment of its value or innate cowness. The internet says the points to consider include:

  • Straightness of top-line
  • Balance between body width, body depth, and body length
  • Smoothness and angularity of front
  • Blending of the shoulder, ribs, and hip

I never mastered any of that kind of discernment. I just didn’t have it. For me, it was either a cow or it wasn’t. I was in 4-H and sometimes the 4-H meeting topic would be judging cattle, and that was like a foreign language to me. Even when I was in the county fair ring showing a calf with other calves, I could never figure out why my calf came in last, and another calf was better than all the others and would win first prize.

I didn’t want to show cattle at the fair; I simply wanted to be at the fair every day of fair week so that I could visit the carnival—the Midway. You might already sense my affinity for theatricality and drama, and the carnival offered heaps of these. I would sleep at the fair in the cattle barn, wake up, feed my calf, and then head to the carnival where the gambling stands and rides were just starting to open up. Then I would ask the carnival people if I could help them bring in customers (I served as a barker) and, if I got in extra good with them, I asked them about their lives.

“Your folks got a farm? Don’t run off and join us, kid, stay where you are.”

My family found out that there was a big cash prize given for the best chickens. I could have a pass to stay overnight at the fair even if I was just showing chickens. 

I also had no chicken discernment. If it was a certain shape and it had feathers, I could tell that it was a chicken, but as far as what made a chicken worthy of a prize, I had no idea. 

for sure a chicken

We won first prize for the first couple of years the cash prize was offered, because it seems that other people in the county with chickens hadn’t found out about the $50 prize yet, so we had no competition. I was happy that, unlike my tending to the calf, I hardly had to fuss over the chickens when I got up from my bed of straw. I could make a beeline for the carnival, beckon customers to spend their money, and discuss life with my new carny friends.

I suppose I should add here that I have a condition called face blindness or prosopagnosia (also known as facial agnosia), considered a neurological disorder characterized by the inability to recognize faces. I can encounter a person at a party three times the same night and each time think I am encountering someone new. 

I do not know if face blindness also applies to cattle and chickens, since prosopagnosia seems like an upscale disorder, not a rustic disorder. Brad Pitt has it, also legendary primatologist Jane Goodall, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. Brad Pitt supposedly is reluctant to attend  parties for fear thathis inability to even recognize friends and co-workers will be interpreted as aloofness.

I’m a little leery to go over to Sarah’s farm and find myself having to discuss features of her prize-winning cattle, but I’ll go and wing it. When a young, amiable woman at the farm greets me, I’ll assume she is Sarah.


(Excerpt from my true story “Did You Kill Anyone Up Here?” written in the early 90’s.)

      “I’m horrible with animals.  I can’t tell ’em apart, never could, no matter how much I stared at ’em.  But I love to look at ’em and hear their noises.”

      “Can you tell a cow from a pig?” she laughed.

      “I can tell by colors, or if the sizes are real different. When we had pigs here, I knew I should improve the herd’s genes. There are many things you can look at to evaluate a pig—amount of backfat, rate of gain, feed conversion ratio. The only trait I could identify was length. I bred only for length. In the beginning at the packing house, they’d say “nice hogs”. After a few years, “nice hogs, John, they got some nice length on ‘em”. Eventually the hogs looked like immense wiener dogs. At the packing plant, they’d just look at ’em from one end to the other. Sometimes they’d say “they sure are long”. Sometimes they just shook their heads.”

Farmer John

Recent Posts
Showing 6 comments
  • Megan Littlejohn

    This farm news had me in stitches! I genuinely love your writing and your humor. I feel so much better learning about face blindness. I have always said “I dont remember names or faces.” It may just be my inattentive adhd, but I have no memory capacity for either.
    Thank you so much for the updates on the beautiful farmland, and the much needed belly laughs.
    We have met, but it’s okay if neither of us could pick eachother out of a lineup.
    As a chef, your farm and everything it represents makes my heart happy. Thank you to you and all your amazing crew for all the hard work.
    I adore the green tomatoes and the corn is just splendid.

    • Farmer John

      Megan, Thanks so much for your enthusiastic comments. I used to wait until towards the end of the tomato season to offer green tomatoes, but this season, I preemptively offered them early on. Shareholders ordered a lot of them.

      Andy Warhol had no memory of what he read or watched. He said all he needed was one movie for his whole life, and one book, and no matter how many times he watched the movie orread the book, he would always be wondering how it would end.

  • Richard Squibbs

    De gustibus non est disputandum and all, but I simply cannot conceive anyone not liking the sweet corn (unless s/he simply doesn’t like corn, period)! Especially this year’s, which has probably been the best of the four summers we’ve been farm members. Even last week’s “overdone” ears were delectably sweet. And this year’s melons were definitely the best we’ve had yet.

    Each of the past three summers we’ve remarked that the farm produce simply couldn’t be better than the past year’s, and each year we’ve been happily wrong. Thanks to you and your crew for all the hard work! Can’t wait to see what the autumn will bring.

    • Farmer John

      Yes, it is weird that a shareholder, for example, found our sweet corn and melons objectionable. Remembering back, it seems the objected to everything in her share. I almost published her letter (without attributing it to her), but it was too dark and too inflammatory. I have been of a similar view as you that this year has been our best so far for quality and yield.

  • Rose Novil

    I recently read Robert Galbraiths (J R Rollins pseudonym) Troubled Blood. A entire family had the condition of not recognizing faces that you have. I had never heard of this before.

    I love your writings and always learn so much.
    Thank you for the wonderful food that you grow and make available to us. My family appreciates your work very much. ❣️

    • Farmer John

      Thank you, Rose. for your supportive comments, Wow, a whole family with face blindness; I keep imagining that,

Leave a Comment